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Will Mali be Africa's Afghanistan?

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The coup backfired. As central control collapsed in Bamako, MNLA and Islamist militants descended on northern Mali's main cities, sweeping the region under their control in a matter of days.

'Want to erase Mali'

The armed groups attacked Gao early one Saturday at the end of March. Maiga was walking through the city center when he heard gunfire. Around him, people scattered.

"I saw them! I saw them!" cried one man, not breaking stride.

Maiga took off on his motorcycle. Then, rounding a corner, he saw them, too: a four-by-four truck, turbaned gunmen, and the black Islamist flag bearing the Muslim profession of faith. The next day he found gunmen pillaging government offices.

"They were even burning the archives," he says. "They want to erase Mali and create another state."

Two days later, MNLA leader Bilal Ag Cherif told prominent citizens and civil society leaders including Maiga, who is a member of Gao's regional youth council, that the Tuareg state of Azawad was a reality.

But ultimately the Islamists were stronger. A dispute in June with the MNLA ended in gunplay. With Mr. Ag Cherif believed wounded, the MNLA fled Gao. A similar shift occurred across the north. Soon Islamist militants controlled the main cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal, enforcing their brand of Islamic law.

A Sept. 25 report by Human Rights Watch cites brutal punishments, including beatings of people caught listening to music and women who fail to cover themselves, and amputations of the hands of alleged thieves.

Yet in Gao at least, Islamist rule has limits, says Maiga. Islamist leaders there are often obliged to work with local religious figures and citizens who represent the interests of the community.

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