(AFP) – Apr 1, 2012
BAMAKO — Tuareg rebels backed by Islamist fighters have seized Mali's main northern city of Gao after the army abandoned its positions, a regional official and witnesses told AFP on Sunday.
"The two (military) camps of Gao have fallen into the hands of the different rebel groups. Gao is in their hands," an aide to the regional governor told AFP by telephone.
The Tuareg rebels confirmed that they had taken control of the city and "ended Mali's occupation of the whole region."
"The MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement) has just ended Mali's occupation of the region of Gao by seizing and taking control of the city this Saturday," it said in a statement posted on its website.
"We control the camp on the outskirts of the city," a local elected official, Mohamed Assale, who has gone over to MNLA, told AFP.
"The Islamists control camp number two which is inside Gao. With the Islamists, we share the same goal, the fight against the Mali authorities," he added.
The leader of the military junta in power in Bamako since March 22, Captain Amadou Sanogo, on Saturday ordered the army "not to prolong" the fighting in Gao, leaving it open to the rebels.
Gao, a city of 90,000 inhabitants, around 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) northeast of Bamako, housed the headquarters of government forces for the entire northern region.
Witnesses told AFP during the night that unknown attackers had forced open the gates of the prison and several public building had been looted by civilians.
Officials with several international non-governmental organisations based in Gao have fled the town, a security source there said.
Tuareg rebels also said they had encircled the garrison at Timbuktu, the last major city that has not yet fallen to their sweep of the north after Mali's coup more than a week ago.
The MNLA said in a statement posted on its website that its forces "are encircling the city of Timbuktu to dislodge Mali's remaining political and military administration."
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