BAMAKO - Islamist fighters in northern Mali cut the hands and feet off five suspected robbers in the northern city of Gao in what they said was the application of sharia or Islamic law, residents and a hospital official said on Monday.

Armed Islamist groups including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) have controlled the northern two-thirds of the vast arid nation since April, when they hijacked a rebellion launched by ethnic Tuareg separatists.

MUJWA, which is allied to other al-Qaida-linked Islamist groups, has said it intends to impose sharia throughout Mali. It had already carried out corporal punishments in territory under its control, including public floggings of suspected adulterers. This is the first time it has carried out group amputations.

"I witnessed them cut off the hand and foot of the five young men that MUJWA has been holding for the past months for theft and armed robbery," a relative of one of the suspected thieves told Reuters by telephone.

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