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Rebels enter northern Mali town of Gao

By on March 31, 2012

Separatist rebels in pick-up trucks loaded with heavy arms entered the northern Mali town of Gao on Saturday as army troops sought to respond with helicopter gunships, a Reuters reporter in the town and other sources said.

The attack came a day after rebels seized the town of Kidal which, along with Gao and the historic trading city of Timbuktu, is one of the three main regional centres of Mali’s north.

The rebels have sought to capitalise on confusion caused by last week’s military coup in the capital Bamako to push their campaign for a homeland in the vast desert region of Azawad, a territory bigger than France.

“I saw them entering the town itself and putting up their Azawad flags,” the Reuters reporter said.

Regular army troops stationed in the town launched a response, he added. “Helicopters have started to take off.”

A Malian civilian source said he had reports from two local residents that helicopter gunships had been deployed.

Earlier, heavy gun fire was heard around the main military camp to the west of Gao, which also serves as the biggest garrison for the north.

Mid-ranking officers behind last week’s coup accused the government of giving them inadequate resources to fight rebels armed with weapons brought out of Libya during last year’s conflict. But the coup has turned into a spectacular own-goal, emboldening the rebels to take further ground.

On Friday, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo pleaded for outside help to preserve the territorial integrity of the former French colony, a major gold and cotton producer.

But neighbouring countries have not answered his plea and have given him until Monday to introduce steps to hand back power to civilians or see the borders to his land-locked country shut down.


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