BAMAKO, Mali — Islamist extremists who seized Mali's north have moved even closer toward areas under government control Monday, a military official and witness said, reigniting long-held fears that the al-Qaida-linked militants could try to push further into the southern part of the country.
A military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the insurgents had reached the village of Bourei, only 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the last town under the purview of Mali's military.
An employee of a bus company called Binke Transport also confirmed that the Islamists had arrived in the village.
"There are numerous Islamists in Bourei aboard all-terrain vehicles and even armored vehicles that they have stolen from the Malian military," Mamadou Guindo told The Associated Press. "There is a real tension there, and we are considering stopping bus transport between Gao and Sevare (towns) for the security of our passengers."
Mali's government lost control of the northern half of the country – an area the size of France – in April after the Islamists took advantage of a power vacuum following a March coup that overthrew the democratically elected president.
A group called Ansar Dine has been implementing its strict version of Islamic law in the north, carrying out public executions, amputations and whippings. An Ansar Dine spokesman declined to comment on the reports Monday of a stepped-up Islamist presence closer to the line of government control.
The U.N. Security Council has authorized military action to wrest the north back, but says there must first be political progress made following the military coup last year.