After a brief stand-off with the local militia on Saturday, the Islamic ‘Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa” (MUJAO) seized control of the strategic town of Douentza.
Douentza lies 170 kilometres from the town of Mopti, which is the last army-controlled town on the route from the capital Bamako in the south west of the country.
Islamist leader Oumar Ould Hamaha told the Associated Press news agency that the attackers had encircled Douentza and asked the local militiamen to surrender. “They tried to make phone calls to ask for reinforcements, but when they saw that no-one was coming to help them they laid down their arms,” he said.
A local teacher said there had been just nine 4×4 vehicles in the convoy.
The Islamists have developed a stronghold in the north of Mali, prompting fears the area could become a base for al-Qaeda. They are accused of organising drug smuggling and kidnappings from the regions they control.
Islamic fighters in the historic city of Timbuktu recently demolished several Sufi shrines and mosques which they regarded as idolatrous. They are also imposing strict Sharia law.
In August, a new unity government in Mali promised to launch initiatives to end the instability.
The regional African body Ecowas is planning to send 3,000 troops to the country to help restore order.
Also last month, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan warned that a military intervention in northern Mali was inevitable if talks with the Islamists fail.