Mali rebels advance on Timbuktu


Mali rebels prepared to advance on the ancient trading city of Timbuktu today, their latest target in a lightning push for a northern homeland which has put the leaders of last week's coup on the back foot.

The main goal of the March 22nd putsch by disgruntled soldiers was to step up the offensive against the northern rebels. However, the coup has spectacularly backfired, emboldening the alliance of Tuareg nomads and Islamists to seize new ground.

The northern administrative centre of Kidal fell on Friday, to be followed yesterday by the garrison town of Gao. The capture of Timbuktu would largely complete the rebels' plan of seizing Mali's north, a desert territory bigger than France.

"The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad announces its army is surrounding the town of Timbuktu to dislodge what remains of the Malian political administration and military there," the main rebel group said on its website, referring to the Azawad region it wants to make its homeland.

Earlier, residents reported that army units were already abandoning their bases, leaving the defence of the town to local militias who took to the streets and fired in the air.

"The (military camp) is empty. Most of the soldiers from the south (of Mali) have fled. It is only the Arabs who are defending the town," a Malian source said.

Another resident who declined to be named said she saw soldiers throwing away their uniforms and donning civilian clothes.

Timbuktu, for centuries a major trading post in the Sahara, was fabled for its gold, slaves and other goods, but it long fell into decline even before French 19th century occupation.

Tentative attempts to develop tourism have been hit by rising insecurity, including kidnappings of Westerners by local al Qaeda agents.

The movement claimed control of Gao after junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo issued a statement yesterday saying its soldiers had chosen not to fight to avoid battles near residential areas.

Mid-ranking officers ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure saying they were fed up with not having adequate weaponry to tackle the rebels, who have themselves been boosted by heavy arms spilling out of Libya from last year's war.

The coup saw the rebels step up their campaign, and their rapid advance has piled further pressure on putsch leaders who have already been internationally condemned.

The junta has until midnight to start handing back power to civilians or risk having their land-locked state suffocated economically by neighbours who have threatened to
seal its borders. While coup leaders won early support from many Malians weary of Toure's rule, the latest military defeats and the sheer scale of foreign disapproval have weakened their position.

"Everywhere it is burning. Mali cannot fight on all fronts at the same time ... Let us put our personal quarrels aside," Siaka Diakite, Secretary-General of the UNTM trade union, said in a statement backed by anti-putsch political parties.