Islamic militants fighting alongside Tuareg rebels in northern Mali are trying to impose strict Sharia law in Timbuktu on Tuesday, witnesses told DPA.

According to one resident of the ancient town, Islamists belonging to the Ansar Dine faction told local radio stations to stop playing international music. They also issued broadcasts telling women to ditch trousers for skirts and dresses.

Ansar Dine is an Islamic movement that has been fighting for the independence of northern Mali alongside the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

According to UNHCR, Malian refugees have been crossing into Burkina Faso and Mauritania at an average rate of 400 people per day in the last few days.

“Malians fleeing to Mauritania are mainly from the Timbuktu region, while those heading to Burkina Faso come from both Gao and Timbuktu,” the agency said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Most tell UNHCR staff that they fled because they were worried about armed robbers and feared there would be more heavy fighting in the north, while some said they left their homes due to lack of food,” the statement said.

Timbuktu was the last town in a string of three to be won at the weekend by the rebels, who want to liberate the region they call Azawad. It stretches from Mali’s borders with Algeria and Niger down to the Niger River, a few kilometres outside Timbuktu.

The town, a UNESCO heritage site, is home to scores of libraries housing ancient manuscripts filled with Arabic writings on African philosophy, human rights and astrology. They have never been digitized and there are fears that the intellectual history of the Sahel region could be lost alongside government control.

On Tuesday, residents of Timbuktu and Gao told DPA that supplies of food and petrol were running low in both towns. UNHCR said it had received reports of armed men taking cars, money and other personal belongings from people fleeing towards Burkina Faso.

UN agencies and NGOs have expressed deep concern that the rebels’ grasp of northern Mali could exacerbate the food crisis in the Sahel.

More than 215,000 people have been displaced from their homes so far as a result of the Azawad conflict.

Malian troops retreated from Timbuktu and the towns of Gao and Kidal after mutinous soldiers took power in a March 22 coup. The soldiers had been protesting about a lack of resources to fight the rebels, but analysts say they scored an own goal instead, allowing the MNLA to press forward.

On Monday, the heads of neighbouring countries belonging to the ECOWAS grouping imposed tough sanctions on the junta in Bamako, including economic and diplomatic moves intended to loosen their grasp of power.

Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo had said he would reinstate Mali’s constitution, but on Monday, ECOWAS leaders said he had failed to fulfill his promise.

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