2012-03-31 "Mali rebels attack northern town in coup aftermath" by RUKMINI CALLIMACHI from "Associated Press"
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Rebels on Saturday 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 nation at the feet of the Sahara after a coup earlier this month by Malian soldiers angry at the government's handling of the rebellion.
The two towns are major prizes for the Tuareg rebels, who launched an insurgency in January fueled by the flow of arms from the fall of neighboring Libya, where many of the rebels had been on the payroll of Moammar Gadhafi.
Gao is around 1,200 kilometers (almost 750 miles) from the capital of Bamako, where junior officers overthrew the elected government and claimed power 10 days ago.
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A soldier at Gao garrison reached by telephone said heavy fighting continued Saturday afternoon and that the army had scrambled helicopter gunships that were bombarding rebel positions. A convoy of 14 army pickup trucks were seen retreating from the town, according to Sidi Amar, a resident of Gossi, around 160 kilometers (nearly 100 miles) from Gao.
If Gao falls, the only other major city in Mali's north in government hands is Timbuktu.
Baba Bore, a radio programmer at the local Radio Alfarouk station in the ancient city of Timbuktu, said gunshots were heard earlier in the day. The families of military members stationed at the city's two camps had evacuated. Checkpoints had been erected on all sides of Timbuktu.
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The Tuareg rebels that have seized control of much of the north are a cloudy amalgam of different factions. They include a secular group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or NMLA, whose stated aim is to carve out a Tuareg homeland in the north. There is also an Islamic faction which wants to impose Sharia law in the north.
Already there are signs of disunity among the rebels. A man who fled Kidal across the border into Niger said the Islamist rebels had taken down all the flags of the NMLA in that city. He said they were going around demanding shopkeepers take down posters considered to reflect Western culture. A hairdresser said he was forced to remove photos of unveiled women that he displayed to show different hairstyles. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals against family members still in Kidal.
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 Kati 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 March 21, the country's democratically elected leader had fled the presidential palace.
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