Dozen of Algerian jihadists have arrived in the Malian city of Timbuktu to support armed Islamist groups who are imposing an increasingly brutal version of sharia law in the vast northern areas under their control, security sources said Sunday.
The latest influx of foreigners joining the Al-Qaeda linked Islamists was revealed as interim authorities in Bamako postponed a key conference to plan the country's transition back to democracy and tackle the crisis in the occupied north.
The fragility of the interim regime and unclear plans to complete the transition back to democracy after a March coup are key concerns as plans are being finalised for regional military intervention to drive out the militants.
A government statement said the conference due to open on Monday in Bamako had been pushed back and would now start on December 10.
Several political parties and associations had planned to boycott the meeting and Moussa Diarra of the Front for Democracy and the Republic (FDR) -- one of Mali's main political coalitions -- said he was pleased it had been postponed.
"Before the conference we need clear terms of reference and to avoid the political hijacking of the event."
As plans for the internationally-backed intervention force take shape, reports have increased of Sudanese, Algerian and other west Africans joining the jihadists' ranks.
"Dozens of Algerian jihadists arrived in Timbuktu this weekend to reinforce the AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) camp," a regional security source told AFP.
He said the fabled city of Timbuktu was "increasingly becoming the headquarters of AQIM in northern Mali."
Regional security sources said in early November that dozens of young Europeans and Africans living in Europe had also attempted to join the Islamists in northern Mali.
On Friday a suspected French jihadist was arrested on the border between Mauritania and an area of northern Mali.
"The arrival of more and more Islamist reinforcements" is to be expected, a Malian security source said on Sunday.
Once one of west Africa's more stable democracies, Mali rapidly imploded after the coup in March ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure's regime.
Angry soldiers seized power after being overwhelmed by a Tuareg separatist rebellion in the north.
However the coup left a vacuum which made the northern cities easy prey to a ragtag group of Tuareg nomads -- who feel historically disenfranchised and demand independence -- and their Islamist allies.
In Bamako, an interim government quickly stepped in, but the junta, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, still held significant sway and it struggled to assert itself.
And in the north, Islamists backed by the regional Al-Qaeda franchise soon seized full control, ousting the more secular Tuareg to pursue their goal of running the region according to a severe form of sharia law.
Married couples have been stoned, thieves have had their arms amputated and smokers and drinkers have been whipped.
A resident of Timbuktu, a former local government official, denounced the toughening of sharia in the city.
"Now, the Islamists are going through houses to confiscate televisions," he told AFP on condition of anonymity. "Yesterday (Saturday) they took at least 25 television sets. Today they began rummaging through houses near the grand mosque."
Two weeks ago the jihadists began going door-to-door to arrest women who were not wearing veils.
Also on Sunday, three Congolese citizens were arrested in Timbuktu after refusing to listen to an Islamic sermon because they are Catholic, a local government official told AFP.
"They were thrown into one of the Islamists' prisons in Timbuktu," he said.
According to him the three men were attempting to illegally enter Europe via the Malian desert but had been stuck in northern Mali after it was occupied by armed Islamist groups.
The international community, fearful the zone could become a new haven for terrorists possible seeking to launch attacks both in Africa and Europe, is backing regional efforts to intervene militarily.
At an emergency summit earlier this month, west African leaders approved a 3,300-strong military force to reclaim northern Mali. The plan must go before the UN Security Council by the end of the month.