BAMAKO Mar 31 – Heavy gunfire broke out Saturday as Tuareg rebels entered the main city of northeast Mali, in a relentless advance on an army struggling with the aftermath of a coup, a local official said.
“We can hear firing from heavy weapons. We also saw two army helicopters taking off” to combat the rebels, regional governor’s aide Mahamane Diakite told AFP by telephone from Gao.
A resident on the north side of Gao contacted from the capital Bamako, added, “Tuareg rebels are trying to capture the city and the army is defending its positions with helicopters.”
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, current chairman of the Economic Community of West African States, meanwhile said the regional bloc had put 2,000 troops on standby to intervene if necessary.
Tuareg separatists of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), allied with an Islamist group, forced the army out of the strategic town of Kidal, north of Gao, on Friday.
Hours later the military said it had made a strategic withdrawal from two other towns, Ansogo and Bourem, “to reinforce our positions in Gao.”
Gao, the military headquarters of northern Mali some 1,000 kilometres (650 miles) northeast of Bamako, has a population of about 90,000, according to the government’s website.
The MNLA, boosted by weapons brought into Mali from neighbouring Libya following the fall of Colonel Moamer Kadhafi, relaunched a decades-old fight for the independence of what the Tuareg consider their homeland in the vast desert north in January.
It has been joined by the Islamist Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith, in Arabic) which is headed by renowned Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly and has ties to Al-Qaeda’s North African branch.
Mutinous soldiers saying they had been given no means to defeat the insurgency, overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22, sparking a threat of sanctions from ECOWAS.
Members of the junta arrived in Burkina Faso overnight for talks with President Blaise Compaore, appointed to mediate by ECOWAS after the coup, his office said Saturday.
Compaore and Ouattara abandoned a trip on Thursday to mediate with the junta led by Captain Amadou Sanogo after a protest by coup supporters on the airport runway in Bamako.
But Sanogo called for outside help Friday after the rebels seized Kidal.
“The rebels continue to attack our country and terrorise our people,” he told journalists at the military barracks outside Bamako which have become the junta’s 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.”
“We have put on alert the standby forces of the Economic Community of West African States,” Ouattara said on television in Abidjan Saturday.
“We have 2,000 men in these forces. We have equipment. We have asked the international community to support us, to support Mali,” he said.
“We wish to avoid war,” Ouattara stressed. “If legitimacy is restored and these armed movements see that there is regional and international mobilisation they will leave Kidal immediately.”
He added, “We must preserve Mali’s territorial integrity at all costs … we must succeed because if Mali is divided, carved up, it is a bad example.”
On the MNLA’s website its spokesman Bakaye Ag Hamed Ahamed said the movement would “continue the offensive against two other regional capitals to dislodge the Malian regime and its army,” in a reference to Gao and Timbuktu in the north.
Following the coup the European Union, the United States and other Western powers have suspended hundreds of millions of dollars of support for landlocked Mali — except for emergency aid to drought-hit regions.
Washington, which has warned the region was becoming a new hub for Al-Qaeda, on Friday supported ECOWAS’ efforts to force the junta to step down but said it was “very concerned” by the latest rebel advances.
The Tuareg offensive has caused more than 200,000 people to flee their homes in the remote region that is also a hub for arms and drug trafficking.