Rebels and Malian Army Fighting in Malian Town of Gao

Posted March 31st, 2012 at 10:55 am (UTC-5)
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Witnesses tell VOA that separatist rebels in Mali have entered the strategic northern town of Gao, one day after they overtook the provincial capital of Kidal.

A VOA reporter on the scene says there are eyewitness accounts of Tuareg rebels in vehicles entering Gao, carrying the Azawad flags of their planned homeland. Heavy gunfire could be heard, and witnesses say army troops have launched a response using helicopters. The rebels are reportedly fighting near the town's military camps.

One witness told VOA that some civilians are seeking shelter at a local marketplace to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

“Things are really heating up. There is shooting everywhere. We have faith in God, but really right now we've got no idea what to do. Between the disarray in the Malian army and attacks by rebels, people feel trapped.”

Tuareg rebels began their insurgency in mid-January, armed with weapons brought into the country following the fall of neighboring Libya. The rebel's have battled for autonomy for decades. Their recent advancement has been aided by confusion caused by last week's coup in Mali's capital, Bamako. Mid-ranking soldiers overthrew the democratically elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22nd after accusing leaders of not providing adequate resources to fight the Tuareg rebellion in the north.

Malian coup leader Amadou Sanogo told VOA in a phone interview Friday that Mali, as part of the regional group known as the Economic Community of West African States , needs international support to protect its territorial integrity against the advancing Tuareg rebels.

Coup leaders are facing growing international pressure to give up power, especially from its neighbors. ECOWAS has given Sanogo until Monday to restore the country's constitutional order or face harsh economic sanctions.

Three representatives from Mali's military junta met with Burkinabe president, Blaise Compaore, Saturday in Ouagadougou to ask for help against advancing Tuareg rebels in northern Mali.

The junta representatives told journalists that the Burkinabe leader's position mirrored that of ECOWAS.

Sanogo said he is now head of state in Mali and has all the honors and privileges that go with it, including the support of the Mali people. The coup came just weeks before elections and the scheduled end of President Toure's term.