Islamists love nothing more than to terrorize women.

OUAGADOUGOU – New fighting and a crackdown on women not wearing veils by Islamist militants on Friday marred peace moves by two rival groups in Mali’s desert north despite pledges they were ready for peace talks with Bamako.

In Islamist-controlled Timbuktu, a local official said dozens of women were arrested on Thursday by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) for not wearing veils.

“The Islamists were going into homes to arrest unveiled women,” he said.

The women were being “imprisoned” at a disused bank, a medical source added, as AQIM militants vowed to continue the crackdown in the city which they control with Islamist group Ansar Dine, saying “that nothing can prevent them from doing so”.

With the north of the country in the hands of a number of Islamist groups, a Tuareg separatist leader meanwhile said his National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) had launched an “offensive” to retake the key north-central region of Gao controlled by the Al-Qaeda linked Islamist rebels of MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa).

But late Friday security sources said the fighting had ended and that the MNLA suffered a “heavy defeat”.

An interim administration has been running Mali since the leaders of a March military coup stepped back from power under international pressure in April.