GAO/BAMAKO (Reuters) – Mali’s army abandoned its military bases around the key northern garrison town of Gao yesterday after a fierce assault by heavily armed rebels, military and civilian sources said.
It was the latest defeat for the army after a lightning 48-hour advance by northern rebels seeking to capitalise in chaos in the West African country after last week’s coup.
“Given the proximity of the camps to residential areas, our forces decided not to fight,” a statement by junta leader Captain Amadou Sanago read out on state television said.
One civilian source said rebels already occupied both main bases around the town while another source said just one of the two camps was now under rebel control. A Reuters reporter in Gao said there was no fighting in the town itself.
“The army has hit the road to Bamako,” said the civilian source of the road towards the capital some 1,000 km (600 miles) further south. A local government source reported dozens of army vehicles streaming out of the camps on the same road.
Gao, a town of some 90,000, is also being defended by well-armed local militia. However a military source said the army had told them to hide their weapons and not to put up a fight if the rebels entered.
The assault on Gao came a day after the rebels – a loose alliance of separatist nomad Tuaregs and local Islamists – seized Kidal, one of the three main towns of north Mali, along with Gao and the historic trading city of Timbuktu.
Junta leaders, whose neighbours have given them until Monday to hand back power to civilians or face sanctions including a crippling closure of Mali’s borders to trade, pledged to come up with proposals “very quickly” to restore constitutional order.
“We do not want to confiscate power,” Colonel Moussa Sinko Coulibaly told reporters in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, after talks with Burkina President Blaise Compaore, named by West African grouping ECOWAS as main mediator in the crisis.
“We will try to refine proposals to quickly reach an institutional solution acceptable to ECOWAS, the international community but also of course our national community,” said Coulibaly, the head of cabinet for junta leader Amadou Sanogo.
Burkina Foreign Minister Djibril Bassolet told Reuters he was flying to Bamako yesterday evening for discussions.