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Mali government 'waiting for' Islamist attack

Mali says it expects Islamist rebels controlling the country's north to make a push southwards. The development comes a month after the UN backed plans for an African-led military operation to seize back the north.

Islamists who control the northern half of Mali are edging southwards and closing in on government-controlled areas, army sources said Monday, heightening fears that the start of 2013 could see fresh clashes in the turbulent African country.

"The rebels have been advancing and have been sighted in several places ... We are waiting for them. If they attack us, we will fight back," said an official, who asked to remain anonymous.

One of the main rebel Islamist groups operating in the country, Ansar Dine, meaning "defenders of faith" in Arabic, did not comment on whether it was transporting troops or planning to launch an attack, although the group did end its ceasefire with the government in December.

"For strategic reasons, we do not say where our troops are. The Malian government is responsible for whatever it is saying about troop movement," said the group's spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama.

War or peace?

Mali's government has struggled to find enough common ground to negotiate a peace deal with Islamist rebels. President Dioncounda Traore continues to emphasize the need for Mali to maintain its territorial unity and secular state, Ansar Dine is calling for sharia law and autonomy for the north.

Last month the UN Security Council gave the green light for plans to deploy an African-led force to re-conquer the country's north. The operation is not expected to get underway before September.

Regional leaders and the African Union have also been trying to secure a peace deal with Tuareg separatists, who first sparked the rebellion, and more moderate Islamists.

The West African country has been in turmoil since separatist Tuareg rebels seized control of northern Mali in April to form an independent state, taking advantage of a power vacuum that had been created by an army coup the month before. The Tuareg rebellion was promptly hijacked by Islamists, who now control vast swathes of Mali's north.

sej/jm (AP, Reuters)