Amid Mali's coup, Tuareg rebels take Timbuktu

A picture taken on April 11, 2006 shows Donkeys carrying stones on their back as they are followed by Timbuktu inhabitants in a street of the northwestern malian city. An armed gang of kidnappers abducted three foreigners and killed a fourth in the centre of the ancient tourist city of Timbuktu in northern Mali on November 25, 2011, security sources said. The victim who was shot dead had tried to resist his abduction, according to the sources who did not give the nationality of the hostages. The kidnappers struck as the four were in a restaurant on the central square of Timbuktu. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

(AP) BAMAKO, Mali - Tuareg rebels penetrated and seized control of the ancient northern city of Timbuktu, a move that deepens the crisis in the West African nation.

Tuareg rebels took advantage of the chaos surrounding last week's coup in the faraway capital to take the town of Kidal, located 800 miles from Bamako on Friday. They seized the biggest northern city of Gao, located around 745 miles away on Saturday — cities that never fell in previous rebellions. A resident in Timbuktu said that the rebels entered the town after a heavy firefight, and were going house to house asking people to remain calm.

Meanwhile, the junior officer who overthrew Mali's democratically elected leader last month and dissolved the nation's constitution made a public U-turn, declaring amid enormous international pressure that he was reinstating the 1992 constitution and planning to hold elections.

Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo added Sunday that he would organize a national convention to agree on a transitional government which will organize free and fair elections. What he did not make clear is when the convention would be held, or when elections would take place, or if he would remain president during the transitional period.

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Mali, once a model democracy, was plunged into crisis on March 21 when a mutiny erupted at the Kati military camp located around 6 miles from the presidential palace. The 30-something Sanogo was one of the few officers who didn't flee the camp when the rank-and-file soldiers began rioting, and he quickly became their leader as they broke into the camp's armory, grabbed automatic weapons and headed for the seat of government.

His coup reversed 21 years of democracy, and sent President Amadou Toumani Toure into hiding. Toure was due to step down after the presidential election, which was scheduled to take place at the end of this month. Mali's neighbors had given the country a 72-hour deadline to restore constitutional order, or else face crippling sanctions. Sanogo's declaration appears intended to stave off the sanctions, which were due to take effect Monday.

A senior adviser to the president of neighboring Ivory Coast said that the regional body representing states in West Africa was considering calling off the sanctions for one week. The information was confirmed by a diplomat from Burkina Faso, the country that is taking the lead in mediating the crisis.

In his declaration, Sanogo said, "We take a solemn promise to re-establish from this day on the constitution of the Republic of Mali of February 25, 1992, as well as the institutions of the republic."

"Taking into account the multidimensional crisis that our country is facing," he added, "we have decided that ... we will engage in consultations with all the actors of society in the context of a national convention in order to put in place a transitional body with the aim of organizing calm, free, transparent and democratic elections in which we will not participate."

Legal experts say that his declaration is contradictory. If the 1992 constitution is reinstated, said law professor Malick Sarr at the University of Bamako, then logically the ousted president should become head of state again.

Sarr said the putschists may be leaning on one of the articles in the 1992 law, which says that in the event that the president is unable to carry out his functions, a 25- to 45-day transitional period will go into effect before new elections are held.

However, the article clearly stipulates that the transition will be led by the head of the national assembly who would become interim president. When reporters asked the coup leader if he still considered himself president, he dodged the question, and turned to leave.

After seizing the strategic northern towns of Kidal and Gao, Tuareg rebels on Sunday besieged the fabled city of Timbuktu, taking their fight for a homeland for the nomadic Tuareg people to the last major government holdout in northern Mali. They penetrated its defense by late morning and by afternoon, residents saw pickup trucks brandishing the rebel flag zipping through town.

Residents contacted by telephone said they were cowering inside their homes as blasts from heavy arms and automatic gunfire crackled early Sunday around the renowned Islamic intellectual center. Once they entered, resident Mohamed Lamine said he saw them take down the Malian flag at the governor's office, attach it to the back of their pickup truck, and drive off, sullying the symbol of the Malian nation. On their website, one of the rebel factions calling itself the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad announced "the liberation of the historic city of Timbuktu, following Gao and Kidal."

The lighter-skinned Tuaregs, who dominate the north of the country, have long felt marginalized by the dark-skinned Bambaras who dominate the nation's south, and whose members are overwhelmingly represented in the junta now leading the nation.

By evening, the airport, the administrative buildings and the military camps inside Timbuktu were under the control of rebels. "The city is totally under their control," Mayor Ousmane Halle told The Associated Press by phone.

In Gao, which the rebels seized overnight, the insurgents were going from bank to bank trying to force their way into the safes, said resident Hama Dada Toure. And in Kidal, which is now starting its second day under rebel control, residents said that an Islamic faction within the larger rebellion was demanding shopkeepers take down pictures of unveiled women.

A hairdresser who fled the city said that he was told to take down the posters in his beauty shop showing different types of hairstyles, because the women were not covered.

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