Mali's army abandoned its military bases around the key northern garrison
town of Gao on Saturday 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
Sanogo 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
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 on Saturday evening for discussions.
Earlier on Saturday, a Reuters reporter saw
the rebels enter Gao early and hoist the flag of Azawad, the desert territory
bigger than France that they want to make their
homeland, before pulling back after meeting resistance.
Some rebels shouted "God is
Greatest" in Arabic, suggesting loyalty to Islamist groups that are not
separatist but want to impose sharia, Islamic law, on the mostly Muslim
The unrest in Mali, Africa's third largest
gold producer, has been fuelled by weapons brought out of Libya
during last year's conflict, and risks creating a vast new lawless zone in the
Saharan desert that Islamists and criminals could exploit.
Mid-ranking officers behind last week's coup
had accused the government of giving them inadequate resources to fight the
rebels. But the coup backfired spectacularly, emboldening the rebels to take
Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, whose
decade in power was associated with stability but also rising frustration with
a political elite accused of condoning widespread corruption, has said he is
safe at an undisclosed location in Mali.
Coup leader Sanogo, who has won significant
street support, pleaded on Friday for outside help to preserve the territorial
unity of the cotton- and gold-producing former French colony.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, the head
of ECOWAS, told state television that a previously announced regional stand-by
force of 2,000 could intervene against the rebels once civilians were back in
"The West African army should come to
the rescue of the Malian people ... Of course, that is tied to a return of
constitutional order," he noted.