Jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State group have seized the village of Tidermene in northeastern Mali, further extending their control in the region.
Officials and witnesses confirmed the capture of Tidermene, which is located 75 kilometers north of the regional capital Menaka, on Monday night.
The fall of Tidermene follows months of fighting by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) to take control of the area.
“Tidermene has fallen into the hands of Daesh,” said an elected official from the town who has retreated to Menaka, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State organization.
“They are distributing Korans to the population (and) moving around town with weapons,” he added, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The capture of Tidermene means that all of the region’s main administrative subdivisions are now under the control of the Islamic State group. Experts believe that the jihadists stepped into a vacuum left when French forces departed from the region last year.
The ongoing conflict between various armed groups, including ISGS, Al-Qaeda-linked Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM), and former Tuareg independence fighters who signed a peace deal in 2015, has resulted in hundreds of civilians being killed and communities being displaced en masse. Some have fled across the border to Niger.
The UN and human rights organizations have documented punitive attacks by jihadists against communities they accuse of helping the state or refusing to join their ranks.
According to one Tidermene refugee who is now in Menaka, ISGS fighters are targeting civilians who own weapons or walkie-talkies, especially those who were associated with JNIM, which used to have a stronghold in Tidermene.
“The Malian army controls Menaka and is ensuring the protection of civilians,” said an army officer when asked about the capture of Tidermene. Armed groups and Minusma military personnel are also present in the region.