, BAMAKO, April 4 – World leaders scrambled to stop Mali’s descent into chaos Wednesday, two weeks after a coup in Bamako touched off a sequence which saw Tuareg rebels backed by radical Islamists conquer half the country.
The United Nations Security Council was to make a statement on the crisis amid warnings Al-Qaeda-linked militants were on the verge of creating an Islamic state on a territory larger than France.
The European Union called for an immediate ceasefire in the north, voicing “great concern” over the situation in the fabled city of Timbuktu where Islamic radicals imposed sharia law.
Islamist rulers ordered women to wear headscarves and threatened to cut off the hands of thieves. Residents said Wednesday they had ransacked bars and other places selling alcohol.
The head of the extremist group Ansar Dine, notorious rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly, has set up base at the town’s military camp and has been flanked by three of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s top leaders.
Ag Ghaly’s men have fought alongside the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) — a secular group seeking independence for the Tuaregs — to conquer more than half of Mali in a matter of days.
However residents and security sources report the Islamists are in charge of Timbuktu which is famously used as a metaphor for a faraway place and has a rich 900-year history as an African trading and cultural capital.
In the north-eastern city of Gao the situation grew more desperate as reports of rape, widespread looting and restrictions of movement emerged under a motley crew of rebels and criminal groups.
Military rulers in Bamako who have been scrambling to restore order since their coup thrust the nation into crisis on March 22, on Wednesday accused rebels in Gao of “grave rights violations.”
Gao’s elected lawmaker Abdou Sidibe confirmed that it was under the control of several rebel groups including AQIM splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and traffickers.
In an interview to AFP on Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned that the Islamist advance could have continental repercussions.
UN Security Council members on Wednesday were expected to agree on a joint statement sending out a strong message but offering no firm action on the ground.
The United States took action Tuesday, joining the African Union in imposing travel bans on coup leaders as international efforts were redoubled to restore democratic rule in a country descending into chaos.
Feeling the bite of the mounting sanctions and pressure from all sides, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo proposed a national meeting on Thursday to determine “what will be best for the country.”
Following what some observers have described as an “accidental coup” by a band of low-ranking officers angry at their hierarchy, the Tuareg-Islamist alliance swept across the north, seizing all key cities virtually unopposed.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) already cut off the landlocked country which depends heavily on imported fuel and froze access to its bank account in Dakar.
More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes since the Tuareg rebels launched their offensive on March 17.
The UN cultural agency UNESCO also called on the Malian authorities and the warring factions to respect the desert country’s heritage and the “outstanding architectural wonders” in Timbuktu.