BAMAKO: Tuareg rebels made a dramatic push across northern Mali on Sunday and entered the legendary desert town of Timbuktu, locals said, as the disorganized junta indicated it was ready to cede power.
Tuareg rebels assisted by Islamist fighters have swept across much of northern Mali since renegade soldiers staged a coup on March 22, saying they were fed up with the government’s handling of a Tuareg fight for an independent homeland.
But since the coup, the army’s position in the north has weakened dramatically and rebels have seized several towns, including Gao, which had served as army headquarters for the entire northern region.
On Sunday, witnesses told AFP they heard heavy weaponry blasting Timbuktu’s military base, some 200 miles from Gao, but said the Malian army appeared to have deserted.
The apparent move follows army orders for soldiers in Gao to no longer resist rebels.
“Mali forces have decided not to prolong the fighting” around Gao because of the civilian population, coup leader Amadou Sanogo said.
“A more viable security plan will be put in place so that the whole territory of Mali will not be violated.”
Timbuktu — a fabled trading hub synonymous with exotic isolation — was the last major town in Mali’s north not to have fallen into the hands of Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters.
“Yes, the rebels have arrived in Timbuktu”, a resident told AFP by telephone. “As we speak, I see them going towards a bank in the city.”
“It’s true, there are rebels in the town. They were accompanied by a former Malian minister,” a hotel worker in the town’s centre said, without identifying him.
A young civilian died after he was struck by shrapnel, said Omar Haidara, director of a Timbuktu private school.
The town of about 50,000 residents is a United Nation’s world heritage site, nicknamed the “pearl of the desert”.
An Arab loyalist militia said the town had been ringed by several rebel groups.
Residents reported widespread looting in several areas.
“The treasury, the banks, police stations, the office of the governorate and even the hospital have been pillaged,” said the head of the local branch of a bank.
Mali’s political situation is growing increasingly chaotic after the internationally condemned coup which led President Amadou Toumani Toure to flee. He is in hiding in the capital Bamako but has said he is safe.
On Sunday, coup leader Sanogo declared Mali’s constitution “restored” and announced the reinstatement of state institutions, promising elections in which the junta would not take part.
The junta would engage in mediated talks that should lead to the creation of transitional bodies “to organize free, open and democratic elections in which we will not participate,” Sanogo said without providing a timeline.
Late Saturday, Tuareg rebels confirmed they had taken control of Gao and said they had surrounded Timbuktu.
“The (Tuareg) MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement) has just ended Mali’s occupation of the region of Gao by seizing and taking control of (Gao) this Saturday,” it said in a statement posted on its website.
Gao was rocked by heavy gunfire, though it was not known how many people were killed or injured in the fighting.
The MNLA has relaunched a decades-old fight for the independence of what the Tuareg consider their homeland in the vast desert region.
It 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.
Another Qaeda-related group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), has said it too took part in the fight for Gao.
The MNLA’s capabilities were boosted when fighters brought weapons into Mali from neighbouring Libya after the fall of Moamer Kadhafi.
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.
Following the coup, the European Union, the United States and other Western powers suspended hundreds of millions of dollars (euros) 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 regional African bloc ECOWAS’s efforts to force the junta to step down.
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.