Witnesses tell VOA that separatist rebels in Mali have entered the strategic northern town of Gao, one day after they seized the provincial capital of Kidal.
A VOA reporter in Mali says there are eyewitness accounts of Tuareg rebels in vehicles entering Gao, carrying the Azawad flags of their planned homeland. Heavy gunfire could be heard, and witnesses say army troops have launched a response using helicopters. The rebels are reportedly fighting near the town’s military camps.
One witness told VOA that some civilians are seeking shelter at a local marketplace to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
“Things are really heating up. There is shooting everywhere. We have faith in God, but really right now we’ve got no idea what to do. Between the disarray in the Malian army and attacks by rebels, people feel trapped.”
Tuareg rebels began their insurgency in mid-January, armed with weapons brought into the country following the fall of neighboring Libya. Tuareg separatists have been seeking autonomy for decades. Their most recent advances came during confusion following last week’s coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Mid-ranking soldiers overthrew the democratically elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22 after accusing leaders of not providing adequate resources to fight the Tuareg rebellion in the north.
Malian coup leader Amadou Sanogo told VOA by telephone on Friday that Mali needs international support to protect its territorial integrity against the rebels, especially because Mali is part of the regional cooperative group known as the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS.
Coup leaders are facing growing international pressure to give up power, especially from Mali’s neighbors. ECOWAS has given Sanogo until Monday to restore the country’s constitutional order or face harsh economic sanctions.
Three representatives of the military junta met in Ouagadougou Saturday with Burkina-Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore, to ask for help repelling Tuareg fighters in northern Mali. Their appeal apparently went unanswered, however. The envoys from Bamako told journalists that the Burkinabe leader’s position mirrored that of ECOWAS.
Junta chief of staff Colonel Moussa Coulibaly told reporters Saturday after talks in Ouagadougou that leaders of the junta do agree on the need to swiftly restore constitutional order. Details on how they plan on establishing such order, however, remain unclear.
Sanogo said he is now head of state in Mali, with the full support of Mali’s people. The coup that he led came just weeks before elections and the scheduled end of President Toure’s term.