Iyad Ag Ghali leader of the Islamic group of Ansar Dine (L) looks on at in Kidal airport on August 7, 2012.

Washington - The United States on Monday blacklisted the leader of a Malian rebel group accusing him of links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and imposing harsh laws on northern towns in the country.

Iyad ag Ghali, leader of the Ansar al-Dine, was placed on the State Department's designated global terrorist list, freezing any assets he may have in the United States and barring Americans from any transactions with him.

Ghali set up his group in late 2011 when he failed in a bid to take over a secular Tuareg group in northern Mali “due to his extremist views,” the department said in a statement.

Aided by backing from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), his rebels went on to capture the towns of Agulhok, Tessalit, Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu between January and April 2012, the statement said.

French troops intervened in Mali in January to drive out the rebels, which had captured a swath of northern territory allowing Ghali's rebels to impose “harassment, torture, or execution” of Malians who refused his Islamic laws.

Ghali, who is also listed on the UN al-Qaeda sanctions committee, is a long-time fighter against the Malian government, having led a 1990 rebellion by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MPLA).

After the 1992 peace accords, he became the Tuareg community's leading negotiator with the Malian president's office.

But in 2006 he took command of rebel fighters behind attacks on military bases in Kidal, the State Department said.

Ansar al-Dine split in January, with the breakaway faction known as the Islamic Movement for Azawad saying it was ready for peace talks.

The French intervention backing Malian forces has driven Islamist rebels - composed of various different groups - from cities in the north of the West African country, but clashes and guerrilla attacks have continued.

“The fighting is fierce and is continuing as we speak,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio early Tuesday, adding there had been “many, many jihadist deaths” without providing specific numbers. - AFP