Tuareg rebels assisted by Islamist fighters have swept across much of northern Mali since renegade soldiers staged a coup on March 22, saying they were fed up with the government’s handling of a Tuareg fight for an independent homeland.
But since the coup, the army’s position in the north has weakened dramatically and rebels have seized several towns, including Gao, which had served as army headquarters for the entire northern region.
On Sunday, eyewitnesses told Agence France Presse they heard heavy weaponry blasting Timbuktu’s military base, some 200 miles from Gao, but said the Malian army appeared to have deserted.
The apparent move follows army orders for soldiers in Gao to no longer resist rebels.
“Mali forces have decided not to prolong the fighting” around Gao because of the civilian population, coup leader Amadou Sanogo said.
“A more viable security plan will be put in place so that the whole territory of Mali will not be violated.”
Timbuktu – a fabled trading hub synonymous with exotic isolation – was the last major town in Mali’s north not to have fallen into the hands of Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters.
“Yes, the rebels have arrived in Timbuktu”, a resident told AFP on the telephone. “As we speak, I see them going towards a bank in the city.”
“It’s true, there are rebels in the town. They were accompanied by a former Malian minister,” a hotel worker in the town’s centre said, without identifying him.