Sevare — Following the takeover by Islamist rebels of Konna, a town 55km from Mopti in central Mali, hundreds of residents are fleeing to areas further south, according to eye-witnesses.
A spokesman for militant group Ansar Dine says Islamist fighters took control of Konna at 11am local time on 10 January following clashes between rebel groups and the Malian army. Witnesses also confirmed the takeover.
In the capital Bamako ministers are holding an extraordinary session to discuss the emergency. Meanwhile, residents of Sévaré town, to the south of Konna, say new soldiers and equipment are arriving.
Adama Sangaré, an adviser to the mayor in Konna, told IRIN several people died in the clashes. In the last 24 hours he has helped bury seven bodies. "The Islamists came to the town hall and told us not to leave. They told us they were there to apply Sharia. We are here and we are waiting for our army," he told IRIN by phone.
Another Konna resident, Yaya Coulibaly, was able to flee the town with his wife and two children for Mopti, a town further south, where they are staying with a friend. "As soon as I started hearing rumours that the Islamists wanted to capture Konna, I made arrangements with my family. We have just the basics, clothes, food and we came here hoping Mopti will be safe." If troubles extend to Mopti, he will flee to Bamako, he said.
The UN has approved plans to send 3,000 African troops to Mali to recapture the north but they are not due to arrive until September 2013.
French President Francois Holland stated in a New Year's address that France would be prepared to support Mali in quelling a rebel advance, but only under the auspices of the UN Security Council.
Fear has extended to the towns of Mopti and Sévaré, which is just next door. Mamadou Bocoum, a radio presenter based in Sévaré, told IRIN: "The news that is coming from the front is not at all reassuring. Everyone is scared and people are trying to leave Sévaré and Mopti. There are long queues at petrol stations and the streets are full of traffic."
Oumou Sall, a trader in the Sévaré market and mother of six, is bitter. "I'm not going anywhere with my children. I'll die here because it's my home. The rebels are imposters and I appeal to everyone to help us get rid of these terrorists who want to destroy our lives here."
Tour guide Oumar Touré in Mopti said almost all the hotels had shut down and were removing their signs, as they think they would be the first targets of the Islamist rebels. "The shops are closed and the streets are deserted. Since the first clashes people are holed up at home. "
Government spokesperson and Communications Minister Manga Dembelé urged people to stay calm in a nationwide address on 10 January. "The government is taking all necessary steps to help secure the army and the people. We are working with our partners night and day to explore rapid solutions to this crisis."
Mahmoud Cherif Ousmane Dicko, a well-respected religious leader in Mali, appealed to Islamist rebels. "You cannot in the name of religion, kill your fellow Muslims - this is not possible. Stop the massacre that God - for whom you say you are fighting - condemns."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]