Mali Tuareg rebels control Timbuktu as troops flee

Mali troops at the Kati military camp. 1 April Mali troops, pictured here near the capital Bamako, fled Timbuktu before rebels arrived

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Tuareg rebels in Mali have seized Timbuktu, the last northern army stronghold, as the leaders of last month's military coup said they were ready to cede power.

A rebel statement said they had "control of the entire region" and had ended Malian "occupation".

Government troops are reported to have fled the city as rebel forces swept in.

Military leaders who ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure 10 days ago say they are reinstating the constitution.

However, the BBC's West Africa correspondent Thomas Fessy says they have not stepped down and there are no clear arrangements for a transition of power.

Witnesses in Timbuktu said rebel fighters had taken the airport, administrative buildings and military camps.

"The city is totally under their control," city Mayor Ousmane Halle told AP news agency by phone.

Analysis

Located on the southern edge of the Sahara, and just north of the River Niger, Timbuktu is nearly 1,000 years old. Famous writers have contributed to its mythical status. The Moorish author, Leo Africanus, described how the king of Timbuktu was so rich that some of his golden objects weighed hundreds of kilos.

The town made its fortune through trade, where salt brought in from the Sahara was worth its weight in gold. Slaves and ivory were also traded.

With its distinctive mud mosques rising from the sand, the town is a centre for Islamic scholarship. About 700 ancient manuscripts are held in the town's approximately 60 libraries.

But the Timbuktu of today is very different from the golden age. It is poor and parts of it are sinking under the encroaching desert sands. It has until recently attracted tourists but they have been put off by a spate of kidnappings by a group with links to al-Qaeda.

Residents told the BBC that there was no fighting in the town.

"Early in the morning there were some noises, and people were scared. And then later on there's no fighting on the streets, nothing happened they just fired in the air and finished," said one resident contacted by telephone.

Witnesses said rebel fighters were mixing with local Arab militiamen, who have been protecting businesses since troops fled the town.

Rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) are said to have been driving around the town in pick-up trucks, waving the MNLA flag.

The rebels, who want an independent Tuareg homeland, are reported to be backed by Islamist fighters.

Our correspondent says it is not yet clear how these different armed groups intend to share their prize.

The Djingareyber Mosque in Timbuktu (file image) The historic town of Timbuktu is one of the most famous in Mali

A statement released by the MNLA said they would now begin their "mission of defending and securing the territory of the Azawad, for the happiness of its people".

Azawad is the rebels' term for the entire north of Mali.

Coup leader Capt Amadou Sanogo said in a statement in the capital, Bamako, that the 1992 constitution - which his uprising had scrapped - would now be re-established.

He said coup leaders would consult with local political forces to set up a transition body "with the aim of organising peaceful, free, open and democratic elections in which we will not take part".

He also told AFP news agency he had despatched envoys to the Timbuktu region to try to obtain a ceasefire.

Analysts say rebels have taken advantage of uncertainty after the coup to make swift advances.

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Two other important northern centres, Kidal and Gao, fell to the Tuareg fighters in recent days.

Timbuktu, about 700km (440 miles) from the capital Bamako, was the only major northern town still under the control of the Malian army.

The country has been in turmoil for more than a week since army officers overthrew the government, blaming it for failing to contain the rebels, who launched their offensive in January.

Regional bloc Ecowas said its leaders would hold a meeting in Senegal on Monday to discuss Mali.

Ecowas had threatened to close land borders, freeze assets and impose a financial blockade if the army did not stand down before Monday.

Ivory Coast President and Ecowas leader Alassane Ouattara said the bloc was prepared "to take the necessary measures".

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