Separatist rebels enter Malian town


Separatist rebels in pick-up trucks loaded with heavy weapons entered the northern Mali town of Gao today, a Reuters reporter in the town said.

The attack came a day after the rebels - a loose alliance of separatist nomad Tuaregs and local Islamists - seized the town of Kidal which, along with Gao and the historic trading city of Timbuktu, is one of three main regional centres of Mali's north.

"I saw them (the rebels) entering the town itself and putting up their Azawad flags," a Reuters reporter said, referring to the desert territory which is bigger than France that the rebels want to make their homeland.

"You can hear heavy weapons fire across the town," the reporter added, saying the rebels had set up base in a captured fire station on its outskirts, which later came under attack from army helicopters and heavy weapons.

The unrest in Africa's third largest gold-producer has been fuelled by weapons brought out of Libya during last year's conflict, and risks creating a vast new lawless zone in the Saharan desert.

Mid-ranking officers behind last week's coup accused the government of giving them inadequate resources to fight the rebels. But the coup has turned into a spectacular own-goal, emboldening the rebels to take further ground.

Advances by the Tuareg-led rebels, who have joined forces with Islamist allies, are likely to increase Western concerns about growing insecurity in West Africa.

"If you have a successful Islamist revolt in northern Mali, people will sit up and take notice," John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, told Reuters this week.

Mr Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, said that one leader who might be "looking over their shoulders" at the rebellion would be Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, whose government is battling an insurgency by Islamist sect Boko Haram in the Muslim north of Africa's top oil producer.

Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure, whose decade-long rule was associated with stability and rising frustration with a political elite accused of turning a blind eye to widespread corruption, has said he is safe in an undisclosed location in Mali.

Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, who has won significant street support for his putsch, pleaded yesterday for outside help to preserve the territorial integrity of the former French colony, which is a major cotton as well as gold producer.

Neighbouring countries have not answered his plea, however, and have given him until Monday to start handing back power to civilians or see the borders of his land-locked country sealed.