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 in western Africa 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 Qadhafi. Gao is around 1,200 kilometers from the capital of Bamako, where junior officers overthrew the elected government and claimed power 10 days ago.

If Gao falls, the only other major city in Mali’s north in government hands is Timbuktu. On Saturday, Baba Bore, a radio programmer at the local Radio Alfarouk station in the ancient city, said gunshots were heard earlier in the day. The families of military members stationed at the city’s two camps had evacuated, expecting to be attacked. Shops had closed and checkpoints had been erected on all sides of Timbuktu.

In Gao, a journalist at Radio Aadar said the attack began early Saturday.

“There has been heavy fighting all morning and it’s still going on now,” Ibrahima Ly said at midday. “We can hear heavy arms fire and machine guns. Most of the fighting is just outside town. There is some fighting near the military camp to the east of town. There has been some fighting in the town itself too but that has been quite light. Everyone is scared and locked up at home.”

A government source in Niger who is talking to both sides of the conflict also confirmed the attack. He 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.

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 March 21, 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 on Saturday 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.

At a stadium in the capital, several hundred people were bussed in by political parties that are supporting the putschists for a rally in support of the coup. Mali was considered one of the few established democracies in the region, and last week’s military takeover has erased 21 years of democratic gains.

Those supporting the coup say that Mali’s democratic reputation is an illusion. They point to the widespread corruption that characterized the regime of ousted leader President Amadou Toumani Toure, who went into hiding on the day of the coup and has not been seen since.

They held up signs that said- “No to the facade of democracy.”

Keywords: Mali coup

More In: International | News