BAMAKO: Tuareg and Islamist fighters tightened their grip on northern Mali following the country’s coup, seizing control of a key city Sunday and encircling the historic desert town of Timbuktu.
“The two (military) camps of Gao have fallen into the hands of the different rebel groups,” an aide to the regional governor told AFP by telephone, referring to the city that served as army headquarters for the entire northern region.
“Gao is in their hands,” the aide said.
Tuareg rebels confirmed they had taken control of Gao and said they had encircled Timbuktu, the last city in Mali’s north not to fall to their sweeping advance.
“The MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement) has just ended Mali’s occupation of the region of Gao by seizing and taking control of the city (Gao) this Saturday,” it said in a statement posted on its website.
MNLA forces “are encircling the city of Timbuktu to dislodge Mali’s remaining political and military administration,” the statement read.
Gao was rocked by heavy gunfire Saturday and fell after the head of the junta that seized power in Bamako on March 22 ordered the army not to fight the advance.
Captain Amadou Sanogo said in a statement late Saturday that “the Mali forces have decided not to prolong the fighting” around Gao because of the civilian population.
“A more viable security plan will be put in place so that the whole territory of Mali will not be violated,” Sanogo said in the statement.
It was not immediately known how many people were killed or injured in the fighting.
Coup leaders have said they seized power because the government had not done enough to stem the Tuareg rebellion rekindled in January.
The MNLA’s capabilities were boosted when fighters brought weapons into Mali from neighbouring Libya, following the fall of Moammer Kadhafi.
The MNLA relaunched its decades-old fight for the independence of what the Tuareg consider their homeland in the vast desert region.
The assault on Gao came less than 24 hours after the strategic town of Kidal, to the north, fell into rebel hands following an attack reportedly led by the MNLA and another Islamist group.
With Mali threatening to unravel, the current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara, said the regional bloc had put 2,000 troops “on alert”, ready to intervene if necessary.
Coup leaders have indicated they are open to a return to constitutional rule, though details have not been formalized.
The MNLA has been joined by the Islamist Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith, in Arabic) which is headed by renowned Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly and has ties to Al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Following the coup, the European Union, the United States and other Western powers suspended hundreds of millions of dollars of support for landlocked Mali — except for emergency aid to drought-hit regions.
Washington, which has warned the region was becoming a new hub for Al-Qaeda, on Friday supported ECOWAS’s efforts to force the junta to step down, but said it was “very concerned” by the latest rebel advances.
The Tuareg offensive has caused more than 200,000 people to flee their homes in the remote region that is also a hub for arms and drug trafficking.