BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Tuareg rebels on Friday threatened three strategic northern Mali towns, including the famed ancient city of Timbuktu, as leaders of the two-month-old rebellion took advantage of a power vacuum caused when government soldiers stormed the presidential palace and ousted the democratically elected president.
The second-in-command of the Tuareg rebels said his forces are advancing on the city of Kidal as dozens of government soldiers desert and others abandon their positions in the wake of the military coup in the faraway capital, located nearly 1,300 kilometers (some 800 miles) away.
Col. Dilal ag Alsherif told The Associated Press in an exclusive satellite telephone interview that command of the West African nation's army is in disarray following the coup, and his movement is taking advantage to fight for an independent nation for the lighter-skinned Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by the capital.
Ag Alsherif said he was speaking Friday from "very near to Kidal, you could say I am almost in Kidal," the northern government stronghold that is his next target. He said his men took the garrison of Anefis, a town south of Kidal, without a fight on Thursday. He said most soldiers retreated or disappeared into the desert.
On Thursday, the same day as the coup in the capital, the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad announced on their website that they had taken Anefis.
In Gao, the head of a resident's committee said that the population had issued a "code red" because of rumors that the rebels would attack as early as this weekend. And in Timbuktu, once a tourist hotspot, a member of a citizens' militia said the rebels had contacted them to say that they wanted to take over the town. The militia said they would stand their ground. Both contacts requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Mali is one of the few functioning democracies in the volatile western quadrant of Africa. In the capital, soldiers surrounded the presidential palace on Wednesday as well as the state television station, announcing a coup at dawn on Thursday.
The putschists said they had seized power because of President Amadou Toumani Toure's incompetent handling of the Tuareg insurgency. The rank-and-file soldiers are overwhelmingly from the south, and from ethnic groups that do not share the same language or culture as the Tuaregs. They have died in large numbers trying to keep towns in the north out of the hands of the Tuareg rebels ever since the rebellion started in January.
The irony is that the coup is creating a power vacuum that the rebels seem to be using to make a push for the main towns in the north, the traditional homeland of the Tuaregs where they want to carve out a Tuareg nation.
On Thursday, the whereabouts of Mali's democratically elected leader was unknown. African Union Chairman Jean Ping said he understood the president is being protected by loyal soldiers.
"The president is in Mali for sure — not so far from Bamako," Ping said. "He is safe. We have been assured of that by those who protect him."
He dispelled rumors that Toure has sought refuge at the French Embassy and cast doubt on the mutineers' chance of success.
"I think that the insurgents have not succeeded to have the officers with them," he said. "All the officers have not joined them. So they still have problems."
In France, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said that an attempt had been made to contact Toure, but said he couldn't say whether the Malian president had been successfully reached. Valero added that "to my knowledge" Toure had not made a request for asylum in France.
"For the moment, I will not tell you where President Amadou Toumani Toure is," the coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo said. "He's very well. He's safe. As far as us — I already told you yesterday that our objective is not to physically harm anyone."
Toure himself came to power in a 1991 coup, and was then hailed for handing power to civilians. He left public life for over a decade, re-emerging in 2002 when he won the democratic election. He was elected to a second term in 2007. Toure was due to step down next month at the end of his second term.
Since the coup, France has suspended aid to Mali, and the United States is mulling the same move. African Union officials confirmed on Friday that they have suspended Mali from the continental body.
A diplomat who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press said that Sanogo, the coup leader, was among the elite tier of soldiers selected by the U.S. Embassy to receive military counterterrorism training in America. Sanogo, the official said, traveled "several times" to America for the special training.
That means that he had to pass a background check indicating that he was not complicit in any human rights crimes. The official requested not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.