BAMAKO - Al-Qaida-linked Islamists declared on Thursday they had secured full control of Mali's desert north, a day after pushing their former Tuareg separatist allies out of the town of Gao in a gun battle that killed at least 20 people.

The appropriation by Islamists of a separatist uprising by Tuareg MNLA rebels regarded in the West as having some legitimate political grievances will heighten fears Mali will become a haven for jihadists.

The local Ansar Dine group and allies such as the al Qaeda splinter group MUJWA had already gained the upper hand in the northern town of Kidal and the ancient trading post of Timbuktu after government forces were routed in an April rebel advance.

"Our men control all three of the towns in northern Mali," Oumar Ould Hamaha, a Timbuktu-based Ansar Dine official said of the mostly desert territory which is larger than France.

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