Bamako: Mali`s junta leader appealed on Friday for outside help to secure the West African country after separatist Tuareg rebels took the strategic northern town of Kidal.
Arms spilling out of Libya from last year`s conflict have bolstered a northern rebellion in Mali. President Amadou Toumani Toure was facing rising unpopularity over his failure to halt the rebellion before he was toppled in last week`s coup.
But the putsch has if anything emboldened the rebels, while the coup leaders have been internationally condemned - including by neighbours which on Thursday gave them 72 hours to surrender power or see Mali`s borders and bank funding shut off.
"Our Army needs the help of Mali`s friends to save the civilian population and Mali`s territorial integrity," coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo told reporters at the barracks outside the capital Bamako serving as the country`s presidency.
The rebels, who began fighting for an independent north in January, have seized on the confusion to prepare offensives on the three regional centres in Mali`s remote north. Among their number are Ansar Edine, an Islamist group with loose personal ties to local al Qaeda militants and which promotes sharia law.
Claiming its most significant victory so far, the rebel MNLA group said on its website it had taken Kidal, a town of 25,000, after 48 hours of fighting.
"The MNLA will continue its advance on the two other regional capitals of Azawad," it said of the northern desert territory it sees as its rightful homeland.
Cries of joy
A junta statement confirmed the fall of Kidal.
"To preserve the life of the people of Kidal, the military command decided not to prolong the battle," it said, adding that the rebels included MNLA, Ansar Edine and local al Qaeda men.
A military source in Kidal said soldiers abandoned positions in one camp so as to coordinate a counter-offensive.
"The rebels are going around town, telling people to go about their business as usual. They are all armed, in four-wheel drive vehicles. Women uttered cries of joy to greet them at the airport," said Kidal resident Moussa Maiga by phone.
Mali`s neighbours on Thursday demanded the leaders begin handing back power to civilians by Monday or face a crippling closure of trade borders, diplomatic isolation and a freeze in funding from the regional central bank.
Such measures could further damage the interests of foreign miners in Africa`s third biggest gold producer. Uncertainty has already pushed their shares lower on Western stock exchanges.
While not responding directly to the ultimatum, Sanogo said the junta "understood the situation" of the 15-member West African ECOWAS bloc, but pleaded for them to look again at land-locked Mali`s plight and possible solutions.
"We are inviting ECOWAS to deepen its analysis of the situation in Mali and how Mali got here," said Sanogo, who has previously described the entire political class around ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure as corrupt and incompetent.
Fragile neighbours such as Niger and Ivory Coast are concerned that a successful coup in Mali could encourage copy-cat moves on their soil. ECOWAS has threatened to use military force as a last resort to reverse the coup.
"By April 2, if the junta does not hand over power, ECOWAS will strictly apply the envisaged sanctions," ECOWAS-member Benin`s Foreign Minister Nassirou Bako said.