Separatist Tuareg rebels in Mali attacked the northern garrison town of Gao on Saturday, one day after taking the town of Kidal. The advances come as the military government scrambles to avoid sanctions by the regional bloc ECOWAS.
Residents of Gao told VOA that heavy weapons fire started in Gao early Saturday as Tuareg rebels and the Malian army clashed. The attack comes one day after rebels took another major northern city, Kidal.
The soldiers who took power in a March 22 coup said they wanted to put up a more robust military response to the two-month-old rebellion in the north, and preserve Mali’s territorial integrity. But since the coup, rebels - who want independence for the north - have only gained ground.
People who talked with VOA from Gao did not want to be identified, out of concern for their security.
"Things are really heating up," says a man who was among people seeking shelter at a marketplace as heavy gunfire erupted around the town. "There is shooting everywhere. We have faith in God, but really right now we’ve got no idea what to do."
He said between the disarray in the Malian army and attacks by rebels, people feel trapped.
"We are in the crossfire here," he went on to say. "We’ve got no idea what our future holds with the Malian army, we’ve got no idea what our future holds with the rebels."
Another resident of Gao said rebels were said to be on the outskirts of Gao on Friday evening but waited until the morning to attack.
He says, now that the rebels are here in the middle of town, the army can’t do a thing. The army might have done something before the rebels got to the town, but now it’s done. The man says the people have no army to defend them.
Tuareg rebels have battled for autonomy for decades. But northern Mali is home to several ethnic groups. This man noted that one of those groups, the Songhai, will never accept independence.
"You won’t find a single Songhai who will accept this, he says. Independence for what? Mali is one country, indivisible," he said.
For now, the man said, people in Gao are worried about how they are going to eat, especially with looming economic sanctions. ECOWAS on Thursday gave the junta 72 hours to hand power back to civilians or borders would be closed and Mali's account at the regional central bank would be frozen.
This ultimatum by ECOWAS, how are people going to eat? this man asks. How will people find money? People are going to starve to death, he says.
After the rebels took Kidal on Friday, junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo appealed to ECOWAS for assistance.
A delegation of the military junta traveled to Burkina Faso on Friday. ECOWAS has named Burkina President Blaise Compaoré mediator for Mali.