Rebels in Mali completed their capture of the biggest population centres in the north of the country yesterday by taking the historic trading town of Timbuktu.
Its capitulation, eight days after a coup by junior officers in the capital, Bamako, which overthrew the democratically elected Government, marks the latest gain in a three-day advance by the Tuareg rebels. The junta said that it was seeking to negotiate a peace deal with the rebels and sent representatives to discuss a ceasefire.
The Tuareg forces, thought to be about 1,000, have exploited the uncertainty caused by the overthrow of the Government of President Amadou Toumani Touré, which has left the army with no clear chain of command.
“The rebels have arrived in Timbuktu,” one resident said. “As we speak, I see them going towards a bank.”
Umar ag Hameleck, another resident, said: “The rebels are in the city.”
Many inhabitants had armed themselves for fear of a rebel onslaught, and young boys were carrying Kalashnikovs and the old bolt-action rifles commonplace in Mali.
The battle did not materialise, with reports suggesting that the rebels allowed Malian soldiers to flee south before reaching a deal with the pro-Government Arab militiamen left behind to supposedly hold the town, home to about 55,000 people. There were reports that one resident had died in earlier skirmishes and that the rebels had begun looting the town.
Timbuktu is a world heritage site with a famed adobe mosque and annual music festival, and at one time bestrode a trading empire. It grew rich on duties from caravans bearing salt, gold, ivory and slaves and became a centre of learning, with hundreds of thousand of manuscripts in its library.
After the first successful visit by a European in 1826, Alfred Lord Tennyson immortalised it as place synonymous with mystery and exoticism.
Tourists have been driven off by kidnappings by bandits linked to al-Qaeda. The restoration of its library has been put on hold. Work is hard to come by and development slow — one of the key complaints the rebels make.
The Tuareg rebels who now hold the city are fighting for an independent state and have acquired new equipment from the aftermath of the Libyan conflict. The junior officers who led last week’s coup said that they were forced to act to restore the Malian army’s status after heavy defeats to the rebels. It seems instead to have undermined the armed forces’ remaining ability to resist their advance.
Captain Amadou Sanogo, the leader of the coup, acknowledged that Timbuktu had fallen, ceding the rebels control of an area the size of France.
“We have inherited . . . a desperate situation. We’ve dispatched emissaries to try to obtain a ceasefire,” he said.
To try to stave off growing international pressure to stand aside, he promised “to re-establish from this day on the constitution of the Republic of Mali . . . as well as the institutions of the republic”. However, he failed to make clear how this would be compatible with his apparent intention to see the transition back to democracy.