BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — An Islamist group behind public executions and amputations in northern Mali is further expanding its reach, taking in a new brigade of members.
The new wing of Ansar Dine, known as Ansar Shariah, has raised a new flag in Timbuktu that reads: "There is no god but God" emblazoned on white cloth.
"We want to broaden Ansar Dine to other communities in the north of Mali," said Oumar Ould Hamaha, an Islamic commander who is one of the organizers of the new brigade.
As the group claims expansion, some observers question whether fighters from other groups in the north are drawn to Ansar Dine's status because of its negotiations with the Malian government and the potential protection that might bring during a future military intervention.
Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith," controls the towns of Kidal and Timbuktu in northern Mali. The fighters — estimated between 500 and 1,000 — have imposed a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah there. They've stoned to death a couple accused of adultery, hacked off the hands of thieves and have recruited children as young as 12 into their ranks. Heavily armed men also have attacked bars that sell alcohol, and banned men and women from socializing in the streets.
However, in recent weeks their leaders have tried to make concessions, including distancing themselves from terrorism, even though many analysts question their sincerity.
The group led by longtime Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghali came to power after a rebellion launched by members of the Tuareg ethnic group in the north. And most of Ansar Dine's members have been made up of Tuaregs since it was formed one year ago.
The new wing , Ansar Shariah, will include local Arabs known as the Berabiche, as well as people of other ethnicities from the north who organizers say support the implementation of Shariah law there.
Alghabass Ag Intalla, one of Ansar Dine's leaders, confirmed the formation of the new group, saying it was made up mainly of Berabiche members and fighters previous allied with MUJAO, another Islamist extremist group that controls the city of Gao.
"The members of Ansar Shariah have accepted our principles and our approach, and they are under our coverage. There's no problem," he said.
Ansar Dine has been attracting new members because it is now seen as the only Islamic group in the north that can be brought to the negotiating table, analysts say. That's in part because their leaders are all Malian nationals who own property in north Mali and stand to lose if an international military operation is sanctioned.
By contrast, MUJAO and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, are led by Algerian and Mauritanian commanders. Their ideology is in sync with al-Qaida's and their spokesmen have made clear that they have no interest in negotiating with the "infidel" government of Mali.
Ansar Dine says some members have left MUJAO to join Ansar Shariah, a shift that comes amid questions about whether MUJAO could be a target of any regional military operation.
Still, the choice of forming the subgroup of Ansar Shariah rather than expanding the existing Ansar Dine organization also could suggest that some of these newer militants may not feel comfortable being under Ag Ghali's leadership, observers say.
The Islamist groups first took control of northern Mali in the wake of a March military coup in the country's distant capital.
This year's initial fighting prompted hundreds of thousands of Malians to flee the north, but many have since returned because of economic hardships elsewhere — even though it means living under the extremists' version of Shariah law, under which a person can be lashed for possessing cigarettes.
On Thursday, the U.N. approved an African-led military operation to oust al-Qaida-linked extremists from northern Mali, but not before the training of the country's security forces and progress on political reconciliation and elections.
Mali's president has urged an intervention but acknowledged that in the end most of the extremists within Ansar Dine are in fact Malians and not foreign fighters.
"The Malian people have offered their solidarity to all people who have needed it," President Dioncounda Traore said. "Why today can we not also benefit from international solidarity?"
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.