Bamako - The Islamists occupying northern Mali on Wednesday gave a couple 100 lashes of a whip for having a child out of wedlock as they continue enforcing shari'ah law, witnesses told AFP.
"At Sankore Square in Timbuktu, a man and a women got 100 lashes for having had a child outside of marriage," said local official Mohamed Ould Baby.
"People were watching it like it was a show. I was there, I saw the youths arriving at the square, I saw them being whipped, it is the first time I have seen something like that."
The official said Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) carried out the punishment.
Ansar Dine, which seized control of the north of Mali flanked by other rebel groups, has been implementing strict Islamic law, shari'ah, since late March, but this is the first time a couple has been punished in this fashion.
They have asked women to wear veils, whipped smokers and destroyed cartons of cigarettes while banning the sale of alcohol.
According to shari'ah, 100 lashes of a whip is the punishment for "fornicators" or those who have sex outside of marriage.
A hospital source in Timbuktu said the couple had sought treatment at the hospital after the beating.
An Islamic police official in the town said six other women who had had children outside of marriage would soon be "punished by Islamic law".
Islamists want strict Muslim law
The age of the children was not mentioned, however with Ansar Dine only in charge for about three months, they would have been conceived before the group seized the city.
While majority Muslim, Mali has long had a secular and moderate culture, with the ancient city of Timbuktu a meeting point for various tribes and religions.
The vast north of Mali, larger than France, was seized by Islamist and Tuareg rebels in a lightning advance which took advantage of a coup in Bamako in the south on 22 March.
However Ansar Dine got the upper hand and began implementing shari'ah in northern towns such as Gao and Timbuktu.
The two groups have different objectives: The secular Tuareg want independence for their traditional homeland, and the Islamists want strict Muslim law.
Brief plans between the two rebel groups to merge and create a breakaway Islamic state fell apart in recent weeks over the implementation of shari'ah.
"All we want is the implementation of shari'ah in Mali," said a source from Ansar Dine on Wednesday. "We are against independence."
While the north remains occupied, the south is now led by a transition government after the junta stepped aside, but has made little progress in plans to win back the lost territory.
Ansar Dine has sent a delegation to Ouagadougou to meet with Economic Community of West African States-appointed mediator, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore.
On Monday the Islamists said they were ready to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis in Mali, which has left the landlocked country effectively partitioned.
The northern desert has long been plagued by drug trafficking and other criminal activities and in recent years has become the base of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has kidnapped many westerners in the Sahel.
Ansar Dine has openly allied with AQIM, sparking fears a breakaway state could become a hive of terrorist activity.