By Adama Diarra -BAMAKO (Reuters) - Islamist rebels have cut off the hand of a suspected cattle thief in Mali, an insurgent leader said on Thursday - the first case of amputation under sharia (Islamic law) imposed by insurgents controlling the country's desert north.
Witnesses told Reuters a large crowd gathered in a square in the village of Ansongo, about 100 km (60 miles) from the regional capital Gao, pleading in vain with the MUJWA rebel group to spare the man.
"Yes, our men cut off the hand of a thief after a judgment based on supporting evidence. They did it according to sharia," Aliou Toure, a top MUJWA figure in Gao, told Reuters by telephone. The amputation took place on Wednesday.
Abdel Moussa, a local tea vendor in Ansongo, said a large crowd of men, women and children watched the amputation in horror after pleading with MUJWA figures to stop.
Malian youths in Gao clashed with Islamists earlier in the week over a separate plan to amputate the hand of a suspected robber, forcing MUJWA to delay the punishment.
Another Islamist group, Ansar Dine, publicly stoned to death a couple in the remote town of Aguelhok in late July after they were accused of engaging in extramarital affairs.
Mali's vast desert north has been under the control of a patchwork of Islamist groups and separatist Tuaregs since April, after a coup in the capital Bamako sapped the government's ability to counter them.
Regional and Western governments have warned that Mali's north could become the next launchpad for international Islamist attacks, as Afghanistan was more than a decade ago, and efforts are under way to organize a joint intervention force.
Regional mediators, including Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole and the president of the High Islamic Council in Mali, Mahmoud Dicko, are seeking to negotiate with the northern rebel groups for a solution to the crisis.