Rebels Make Advances on Timbuktu in Mali

Posted April 1st, 2012 at 5:35 am (UTC-5)
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Witnesses in Mali say rebels are making advances on the historic town of Timbuktu. Gunfire has been heard in the area Sunday.

Timbuktu is the last of three key northern cities targeted by Tuareg rebels.

The rebels secured the city of Gao late Saturday after the Malian army ceased a day-long gun battle with rebels, expressing concern for civilian safety.

Mali's military leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, released a statement on state TV saying that given the situation of the populations near the battle zone, the forces decided not to fight.

The army pulled troops out of the area, making Gao the second town Tuareg rebels have taken in the last few days, after they seized the provincial capital, Kidal.

A VOA reporter in Mali said earlier Saturday eyewitnesses first spotted Tuareg rebels in vehicles entering Gao, carrying their Azawad flags. At that time, heavy gunfire could be heard, and witnesses said army troops launched a response using helicopters. The rebels also fought near the town's military camps.

Tuareg rebels began their insurgency in mid-January, armed with weapons brought into the country following the fall of neighboring Libya. Tuareg separatists have been seeking autonomy for decades.

Their most recent advances came during confusion following a military coup in Mali's capital, Bamako. Mid-ranking soldiers overthrew the democratically elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22 after accusing leaders of not providing adequate resources to fight the Tuareg rebellion in the north.

Malian coup leader Sanogo told VOA Friday that Mali needs international support to protect its territorial integrity against the rebels, especially because Mali is part of the regional cooperative group known as the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.

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

Three representatives of the military junta met in Ouagadougou Saturday with Burkina Faso's president, Blaise Compaore, to ask for help repelling Tuareg fighters in northern Mali. Their appeal apparently went unanswered. The envoys from Bamako told journalists that the Burkinabe leader's position mirrored that of ECOWAS.

Junta chief of staff Colonel Moussa Coulibaly told reporters Saturday after talks in Ouagadougou that leaders of the junta do agree on the need to swiftly restore constitutional order. However, details on how they plan on establishing such order remain unclear.

Sanogo said he is now head of state in Mali, with the full support of Mali's people. The coup that he led came just weeks before elections and the scheduled end of President Toure's term.

((Translation and transcription of additional acts available in House Shared Saturday:

Residents in Mali:

Anon 1 Act 2 in French: “We are in the crossfire here. We've got no idea what our future holds with the Malian army. We've got no idea what our future holds with the rebels.”

Anon 2 Act 1 in French: “Now that the rebels are here in the middle of town, the army can't do a thing. The army might have done something before the rebels got to the town but now it's over. The people have no army to defend them.”

Anon 2 Act 2 in French: “You won't find a single Songhai who will accept this. Independence for what? Mali is one country.” Members of the Songhai ethnic group make up part of the population of Gao.

Anon 2 Act 3 in French: “This ultimatum by ECOWAS, how are people going to eat? How will people find money? People are going to starve to death.”