Tuareg fighters have entered Mali’s main northern town of Gao as they seek to consolidate rapid advances in their campaign since a military coup pitched the country into political crisis.
Gunfire could be heard around Gao on Saturday, Reuters reported, just hours after a series of northern towns were reported to be in rebel hands.
“We can hear heavy fire coming in the direction of the main military camp, which is also the biggest garrison in the whole of the north,” a Reuters reporter in the town said by telephone.
“People here are running all over the place, and all the shops are closing.”
Alessandra Giuffrida, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told Al Jazeera the rebels’ “arsenal is very well equipped”.
“They’re in a position to take over territories that they would like to be free and independent from the Malian government,” she said.
The rebels’ entry into Gao was preceded by an army withdrawal from Ansogo and Bourem, after Tuareg fighters on Friday entered and seized control of the town of Kidal, 1,000km from the capital.
It came a day after Captain Amadou Sanogo, the leader of the coup that toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure’s democratically elected government, called for external help to rein in the rebels threatening the country’s territorial integrity.
Malians in Gao had rallied in support of the new military leaders, some holding banners that read “Peace first, elections later”, in what appeared to be a direct rejection of international calls for the military leaders to step down.
“Contrary to what the international opinion thinks, we support these forces because they can bring back security here, and afterwards democracy,” said Nouhou Toure, speaking for Ganda Izo, a local armed group.
The latest developments follow a rejection by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) of an appeal for aid by Sanogo.
The bloc said it would be willing to help only if constitutional normality was restored by the coup leaders.
“ECOWAS is quite willing to assist the country to protect its territorial integrity, but we cannot do so when the power in place in Bamako is not legitimate … There is zero tolerance to power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means,” Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the ECOWAS commission chief, told Al Jazeera on Friday.
He also said that Sanogo should immediately step down and allow ECOWAS to organise a political transition.
“It is not for him [Sanogo] to [organise elections],” he said. “We want him to return to constitutional normality and then we can discuss a transition period and then organise the election according to the provisions of the Malian constitution.”
Ouedraogo added, however, that he was confident talks would take place with coup leaders before the 72-hour ECOWAS deadline expired.
“We have indications that they want to continue dialogue and I think that this weekend they will be in touch to see how they are going to comply to the ECOWAS demands. But if by the deadline of Monday they have not done so, we have instruction to apply the sanctions,” he said.
On Thursday, the bloc threatened a “diplomatic and financial embargo” unless constitutional order was restored within 72 hours – a move which could cripple the landlocked nation.
The soldiers cited government failure to arm them sufficiently to fight the rebels as the major reason for toppling Toure’s government.
“The rebels continue to attack our country and terrorise our people,” Sanogo told journalists on Friday at the military barracks outside the capital Bamako, which have become the coup leaders’ headquarters.
“The situation is now critical, our army needs support from Mali’s friends to save the civilian population and protect Mali’s territorial integrity.”
The Tuareg rebel Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) in mid-January relaunched a decades-old fight for the independence of what the Tuareg consider their homeland in northern Mali.
The poorly-equipped Malian army has proved no match for the rebels, boosted by the return of heavily-armed fighters from Libya’s conflict.
Giuffrida, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, said: “I think that their victory in Kidal, which was officially announced … on French television by an MNLA spokesman, is very symbolic and is probably gaining momentum among the whole Tuareg population which supports the MNLA and the AZAWAD.
“What’s interesting is to see how little resistance they’re encountering partly because the Malian military doesn’t have enough supplies to retaliate.”