, BAMAKO, Mar 30 – Tuareg rebels fighting alongside an armed Islamist group seized the strategic town of Kidal in the far north of Mali on Friday as the country grappled with a military coup, witnesses said.
“The rebels are in charge, the army put up no resistance,” a teacher said on condition of anonymity in Kidal, which is 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from the capital Bamako.
“Yesterday they launched their offensive, it stopped at about 8:00 pm (0800GMT) and began again this morning. They have taken the two military camps.”
A civil servant confirmed to AFP the rebels had entered the town and were telling people to go about their business and not be afraid.
“They are telling civilians ‘Allah Akbar’ and we respond ‘Allah Akbar’ (God is Greatest),” he said.
He said the men were Islamist fighters belonging to the group Ansar Dine which has emerged on the flanks of the Tuareg rebel Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) in recent weeks, in an ambiguous relationship.
The MNLA in mid-January relaunched a decades-old fight for the independence of what the Tuareg consider their homeland.
They were joined by renowned rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly, who led the country’s second Tuareg rebellion since Mali’s independence between 1990 and 1995 and has returned as the head of Ansar Dine, which has ties to Al-Qaeda’s north African branch.
Ag Ghaly once played a key role as power broker between government and Tuareg rebels and was sent by ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure as an adviser to the consulate in Saudi Arabia.
His involvement in recent fighting emerged when a video was released in March showing dead and captured soldiers after a bloody attack on the town of Aguelhok, in which a spokesman introduces Ansar Dine, naming Ag Ghaly as their commander.
Ag Ghaly is seen inspecting fighters and leading them in prayer and the group explains it aims to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on the country.
The MNLA has distanced itself from any religious demands.
The seizure of Kidal, the capital of the north-eastern region bordering Niger and Algeria, is a huge prize for the rebels who have already taken the two other main towns of Tessalit and Aguelhok in the province.
Aguelhok, taken in January, was one of the bloodiest battles in their offensive and France said 82 civilians and soldiers were summarily executed – tied up and shot point blank or their throats slit.
Renegade soldiers angry at the Toure government’s handling of the northern conflict — in which Tuareg forces, boosted by heavily armed fighters recently returned from Libya, have overwhelmed a poorly-equipped army — seized power in Bamako on March 22.
West African states on Thursday set the coup leaders a three-day ultimatum to restore constitutional order or face diplomatic and economic isolation.