BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — An Islamist group that is competing with Tuareg nationalists for control of northern Mali is stepping up efforts to provide law and order as it tries to gain recruits and the support of local residents.
They've even set up a telephone number that residents can call in case of an emergency.
"They went to see the young people who are already very religious and told them they need people to help ensure security in the town after they leave," a resident told The Associated Press by phone from the northern city of Gao. The resident asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"They have also helped reopen the hospital and they say they are going to buy us medicine," the resident added.
The reports were confirmed by an employee of a local non-governmental organization who also requested anonymity for his own safety.
The retreat of government soldiers from Mali's north quickened rapidly last month after mutinous soldiers in the south overthrew the country's democratically elected president, who had been criticized for his handling of the Tuareg uprising.
The power vacuum allowed the Islamists who want to impose Shariah law in the region to flourish. It's unclear which of the factions has the upper hand, though increasingly it appears that Ansar Dine, the Islamist group, has greater sway.
When bus passengers called the emergency telephone number in Gao a week ago after attackers attempted to rob their bus, the Islamists came, repelled the attack and cut the throat of one of the bandits.
Competing with the Islamists' efforts to win over the population are Tuareg rebels who have declared an independent state in northern Mali.
On Saturday, the fighters from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad held a public meeting in Gao to try to explain their goals to the population, according to the NGO worker. The militants offered people two liters of free fuel and free T-shirts during the meeting.
The NGO worker said local people came to the meeting because of the free goods, but that it is the Islamists, Ansar Dine, who appear to be winning the battle for hearts and minds.
"People prefer the Islamists," the NGO worker said. "They are the ones who are acting like the police and making sure that there is no more theft. I think that even if they wanted to leave people would ask them to stay."
Internationally, however, Ansar Dine has a problem with its reputation. The Malian government has accused it of having links with an al-Qaida-linked group that has been responsible for dozens of kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahel region over the last five years.
The NMLA is saying they are helping Westerners avoid that.
A Swiss woman was kidnapped in Timbuktu on Sunday. Switzerland's foreign ministry said Monday that it is working toward her release, and the NMLA said they would have protected her had they known she was there.
Almost all Westerners have left the north of Mali since the Tuareg fighters and the Islamists took control.
"If we had known that she was there we would have done everything in our power to protect her," said Moussa Ag Assarid, a spokesman for the NMLA. "We already managed to help evacuate a number of Westerners from Timbuktu since we arrived there."
Aid agencies are also increasingly worried about the situation for civilians in Mali's north since government troops and administrative staff were pushed out of the region amid the rebellion.
The Red Cross said on Friday that people in the north of Mali have enormous problems getting food and water and accessing health care.
The Red Cross said it had already provided some fuel to run Gao's generators and intends to keep supplying the town with 5,000 liters of fuel per day. The supply is to ensure there is enough electricity to keep the pumps and treatment plants going that supply the town with drinking water.
On Sunday, the president of the Regional Assembly for Kidal, one of the regions in the north of Mali now outside government control, told Radio France Internationale that the Islamists are willing to open a humanitarian corridor to allow food and medicine from southern Mali to get to the north.
"The condition they have is that they know where the aid comes from and who has given it," Homeny Maiga said. "They won't accept anything that comes from France or the United States, only Malian aid."