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Tuareg rebels take town close to Kidal, taking advantage of coup vacuum
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) ' Tuareg rebels on Friday threatened three strategic northern towns, including the famed ancient city of Timbuktu, as leaders of the two-month-old rebellion took advantage of a power vacuum caused when government soldiers stormed the presidential palace and ousted the democratically elected president.
The second-in-command of the Tuareg rebels told The Associated Press his forces are advancing on the city of Kidal as dozens of government soldiers desert and others abandon their positions in the wake of the military coup in the faraway capital.
Col. Dilal ag Alsherif told The Associated Press in an exclusive satellite telephone interview that command of the West African nation's army is in disarray and his movement is taking advantage to fight for an independent nation of Tuaregs.
Ag Alsherif said he was speaking Friday from "very near to Kidal, you could say I am almost in Kidal," the northern government stronghold that is his next target. He said his men took the garrison of Anefis, a strategic town south of Kidal, without a fight on Thursday. He said most soldiers retreated or disappeared into the desert.
On its website, the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad announced it had taken Anefis, a major outpost which is itself located almost 1,000 miles northeast of the capital, Bamako. The rebels were also threatening Gao and Timbuktu.
Contacted by telephone, an aide to El Hadj Gamou, the colonel in charge of operations against the Tuareg insurgents in Kidal, said: "The rebels are nearby." A resident in Gao said that the population had issued a "code red" because of rumors that the rebels would attack as early as this weekend.
In Timbuktu, a member of a citizens' militia said the rebels had contacted the militia to say that they wanted to take over the town. The militia said they would stand their ground. The contacts in all three towns requested anonymity because they feared reprisal.
Ag Alsherif was a colonel in Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's army. He returned home heavily armed to help form the NMLA, of which he is the secretary general. Scores of Tuaregs who had fought for Gadhafi returned to Mali, bringing their weapons with him, when Gadhafi was brought down in Libya's civil war.
Mali is one of the few functioning democracies in the volatile western quadrant of Africa. In the capital, soldiers surrounded the presidential palace on Wednesday as well as the state television station.
In their first public statement on Thursday, the putschists said they had seized power because of President Amadou Toumani Toure's incompetent handling of the Tuareg insurgency. The rank-and-file soldiers are overwhelmingly from the south, and from ethnic groups that do not share the same language or culture as the lighter-skinned Tuaregs. They have died in large numbers trying to keep towns in the north out of the hands of the Tuareg rebels ever since the rebellion started in January.
The irony is that the coup is creating a power vacuum that the rebels seem to be using to make a push for the main towns in the north, the traditional homeland of the Tuaregs where they want to carve out a Tuareg nation.
On Thursday, the whereabouts of Mali's democratically elected leader was unknown. African Union Chairman Jean Ping said he understood the president is being protected by loyal soldiers.
"The president is in Mali for sure ' not so far from Bamako," Ping said. "He is safe. We have been assured of that by those who protect him."
He dispelled rumors that Toure has sought refuge at the French Embassy and cast doubt on the mutineers' chance of success.
"I think that the insurgents have not succeeded to have the officers with them," he said. "All the officers have not joined them. So they still have problems."
In France, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said that an attempt had been made to contact Toure, but said he couldn't say whether the Malian president had been successfully reached. Valero added that "to my knowledge" Toure had not made a request for asylum in France.
The U.S. Embassy in Bamako issued a statement to dispel rumors that Toure ' a former parachutists in the army ' had sought refuge inside the diplomatic compound. The U.S. Embassy is located less than a mile from the 33rd Parachute Regiment, the unit that is believed to be most loyal to Toure.
Late Thursday, coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo gave an interview on state television in which he said that the ousted president was in good health, but refused to say where he is, or even if he is being held by the putschists.
"For the moment, I will not tell you where President Amadou Toumani Toure is," he said. "He's very well. He's safe. As far as us ' I already told you yesterday that our objective is not to physically harm anyone."
Toure himself came to power in a 1991 coup, and was then hailed for handing power to civilians. He left public life for over a decade, re-emerging in 2002 when he won the democratic election. He was elected to a second term in 2007.
Toure was due to step down next month at the end of his second term.
Sanogo said that the ministers that have been detained by the junta were safe and will not be hurt.
"And I assure you that no one will physically hurt any of them, but as long as I remain at the head of this movement ... they will however need to go before a competent court," he said, suggesting that they will be tried.
Soldiers accuse the government ' and especially Toure ' of sending them to the battlefield without the proper equipment, and without even enough food.
Since the coup, France has suspended aid to Mali, and the United States is mulling the same move. African Union officials confirmed on Friday that they have suspended Mali from the continental body. They will send a mission to assess the situation.
Ping told a delegation that met in Ethiopia's capital on Friday for an emergency peace and security meeting that Mali is going through a "very serious crisis" and that the coup is a big setback for the country and for all democratic efforts across Africa.
Callimachi contributed from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Michelle Faul in Niamey, Niger, and Luc van Kemenade contributed from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.