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Mali rebels attack Timbuktu amid post-coup chaos; city is govt's last northern stronghold
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) ' After seizing the strategic northern towns of Kidal and Gao, Tuareg rebels on Sunday began besieging the ancient city of Timbuktu, taking their fight for a homeland for the nomadic Tuareg people to the last major government holdout in northern Mali.
Residents contacted by telephone said that they were cowering inside their homes as blasts from heavy arms and automatic gunfire crackled Sunday around the renowned Islamic intellectual center where demoralized soldiers are fleeing.
The Tuareg rebels are taking advantage of the chaos surrounding last week's coup in the faraway capital to take the town of Kidal, located 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) from Bamako on Friday. They seized the biggest northern city of Gao, located around 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) away on Saturday ' cities that never fell in previous rebellions.
If Timbuktu were to fall, which is the closest of the three located around 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the capital, it would be the biggest prize yet for the nearly three-month-old insurgency.
Timbuktu resident Mohamed Lamine said that the shooting began at dawn on Sunday.
"We are hearing heavy weapons going off, coming from the south and east of the city. A part of the army abandoned the city last night," he said.
In Gao, which the rebels seized overnight, the insurgents were going from bank to bank trying to force their way into the safes, said resident Hama Dada Toure. And in Kidal, which is now starting its second day under rebel control, residents said that an Islamic faction within the larger rebellion was going from shop to shop demanding that businessowners take down pictures of unveiled women.
A hairdresser who fled the city said that he was told to take down the posters in his beauty shop showing different types of hairstyles, because the women were not covered.
In Bamako, the city was on tenterhooks Sunday waiting for a 72-hour deadline to expire on Monday. The deadline was issued by Mali's neighbors who are threatening crippling sanctions if the junior officers that seized control in a coup earlier this month do not hand power back to civilians.
Coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo emerged from his barracks late Saturday to tell reporters that he was confident his junta would reach an agreement with the regional body representing states in West Africa.
"The conclusions are very good," he told reporters, after a closed-door meeting with the foreign affairs minister of neighboring Burkina Faso.
Associated Press writer Michelle Faul contributed to this story from Niamey, Niger.