Separatist rebels have swept across northern Mali, capturing the fabled desert outpost of Timbuktu in a dramatic bid to carve out a vast new Sahara state.
The swift victory by the rebels, an alliance of Tuareg nomads and Islamist fighters, could lead to an unofficial dismemberment of this West African nation. It raises the spectre of a new rebel-controlled state in the Sahara desert, providing a haven for Islamist extremist groups that specialize in kidnapping and drug trafficking.
Mali, long favoured with massive amounts of Canadian aid and business investment, has tumbled into chaos in recent weeks. Even before the latest rebel advances, it was already enduring a military coup, a refugee crisis and a sharp rise in malnutrition because of a severe drought.
The coup leaders, who seized power on March 22 in the capital, Bamako, promised on Sunday that they would restore the constitution and hold elections. But they gave no details of how or when this would happen.
The coup was led by low-ranking military officers in the south, unhappy with the heavy losses by Mali’s army as the rebels advanced. They complained that the government was failing to provide enough equipment and weapons to fight the rebels.
But if the coup was aimed at strengthening the resistance to the northern rebels, it has backfired badly. The rebels have exploited the coup, using the confusion to escalate their offensive.
The rebels, known as the Azawad National Liberation Movement, are fuelled by an influx of volunteers and weapons from Libya, where Tuareg soldiers were serving in Moammar Gadhafi’s army until the Libyan dictator’s demise last year.
Over the past three days, the rebels have captured the strategic northern towns of Kidal and Gao, and then pushed onward to Timbuktu, the last remaining government-controlled town in the north.
Timbuktu is the legendary 1,000-year-old city on the edge of the Sahara, long a symbol of exotic isolation. Its wealth was built on the gold and salt trade, and it became a centre for Islamic scholarship, with its ancient manuscripts still preserved today.
Although it fell into decline in recent centuries, Timbuktu has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its famous mud-walled mosques, which have attracted tourists from around the world.
Reports on Sunday said the national army had withdrawn from Timbuktu after a battle at a military base, allowing the rebels to march in. The rebels immediately began a looting spree, stealing cars and pillaging banks, police stations and government offices.
The alliance between the Tuareg nomads and the Islamist militants is a murky one. It is unclear whether any of the rebel factions have links to al-Qaeda terrorist groups. But their Islamist influence was evident in the newly captured town of Kidal, where shopkeepers and hairdressers were reportedly ordered to remove photos of unveiled women.
One radical group in northern Mali, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is notorious for kidnapping foreigners. Two Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, were held hostage by the group for more than four months in 2008 and 2009. Its links to the rebels are unknown, but the rebellion will clearly make it easier for the extremists to roam across the Sahara.
In Bamako, meanwhile, the coup leaders seemed to be bowing to pressure from the West African group of states, ECOWAS, which had threatened to impose sanctions if the coup leaders refused to step down.
The main coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, promised on Sunday that he would restore democratic institutions and the 1992 constitution, which he had tried to scrap. But his failure to give any specific details has led to some skepticism.
ECOWAS will hold a special summit in Senegal on Monday to discuss the Mali situation.