Rebels today attacked Mali's strategic northern city of Gao, a day after they took the provincial capital of Kidal, witnesses and an official said. The move deepens the crisis in the landlocked West African nation after a coup earlier this month.
The two towns are major prizes for the Tuareg rebels, who launched an insurgency in January that was fueled by the flow of arms from the fall of neighbouring Libya, where many of the rebels had been on the payroll of ex-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Gao is just 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from the capital of the landlocked nation, where a putsch claimed power 10 days ago.
If Gao falls, the only other major city in Mali's north in government hands is Timbuktu.
A soldier based in a military camp on the outskirts of Gao said he could hear the sound of heavy weapons being fired today. A resident in Gao said that he had seen the Tuareg fighters in the city and that there were brief gunbattles in the town. He said people had barricaded themselves at home. Both the soldier and the resident requested anonymity because they feared retribution.
A government source in Niger who is talking to both sides of the conflict also confirmed the attack, but also asked for anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The force is expected to meet more resistance in Gao, where the majority of troops are from the Bambara tribe. In Kidal, the majority of troops were Tuareg.
Malian residents of Niamey with family members in Gao said the city was under attack from multiple rocket launchers which soldiers who fought for Gaddafi brought with them after his regime fell.
The nearly three-month-old insurgency has cost the lives of dozens of Malian soldiers who were sent to fight the separatists, often without enough ammunition. Last week, soldiers at a garrison in the capital began shooting in the air in a mutiny over the treatment of their brothers-in-arms.
The mutiny spread to other garrisons and by the evening of 21 March, the country's democratically elected leader had fled the presidential palace and the soldiers had grabbed the seat of government.
Mali is now facing severe economic sanctions over the coup. The junta has been given a 72-hour deadline to hand power back to civilians, which expires on Monday. The putschists are sending a delegation to Burkina Faso today to negotiate with regional powers, who are calling for the sanctions.
The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has said that they will close the country's land borders and freeze its bank account in the regional central bank if the putschists do not restore the country's constitutional order.
Coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo has said that he "understands" the position of the regional body, but begged Mali's neighbors to deepen their analysis and to examine the reasons that led to the coup, especially the botched operations in the country's north that cost the lives of soldiers.
Britain's Foreign Office on Saturday advised all British nationals to avoid traveling to Mali. They advised those in Mali to leave if they have "no pressing need to remain."
The Foreign Office said it could not immediately provide any definite figures on the number of U.K. citizens in Mali.