BAMAKO, Mali — Residents said on Monday that the ominous black flag of an Islamist rebel faction is now flying over Mali's fabled city of Timbuktu, which over the weekend became the last major government stronghold in the country's north to fall to the rebel advance.
The news is a worrying development for Mali, where Tuareg rebels took advantage of chaos sparked by a coup in the distant capital of Bamako late last month to claim the three largest northern towns, including Timbuktu.
Early Monday, a member of the military who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter said that he saw a 10-car convoy carrying the rebel Ansar Dine enter the ancient city, located over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from Bamako. They drove to the Cheikh Fort Sidi Elbakaye military camp in Timbuktu, where they planted their black flag.
The rebellion includes an amalgam of Tuareg groups, including a secular faction and an Islamist wing. In Kidal and Gao, the Islamist faction took the lead early on, and shopkeepers reported that the rebels went from business to business telling merchants to take down pictures deemed un-Islamic. A hairdresser said he was made to take down the photographs he had put up showing different hairstyles because the images showed uncovered women.
On Sunday when the rebels first entered the fabled city of Timbuktu, they were led by the secular National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, which is fighting for an independent homeland for the traditionally nomadic Tuareg people. Their convoy carrying the NMLA flag was seen speeding into town. The arrival of Ansar Dine, the Tuareg Islamist faction, is deeply disturbing to the residents of this city that was once a Lonely Planet hotspot and where much of the economy was based on tourism.
In Gao, the largest city in the north which fell to the amalgam of rebel groups on Saturday, residents said that they no longer know who is in charge.
"In Gao, its chaos. We don't even know who controls the city, and who is doing what," said student Ahmed Ould Fneiny. "We see Ansar Dine with their flag. We see the MNLA. We are seeing other Tuareg and Arab groups which deserted from the Malian army. There are people in military uniforms who have stolen all the cars, even the private cars of civilians. We can't leave the city. One liter of gasoline is now 1,000 francs ($2) whereas it was 650 francs ($1.3) yesterday."
The rebellion began in January, after Tuareg fighters who had been on the payroll of ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi returned to Mali, bristling with arms. For the first two months, the insurgency advanced into the remote north, taking a dozen small towns, but failing to capture any of the major population centers.
The rebels have been able to take advantage of the power vacuum that was created on March 21, when a military coup in Bamako toppled the country's democratically elected leader. As the military junta controlling the south of the country negotiates with regional powers, who are threatening sanctions, the rebels pushed forward, encircling Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu — cities that had never fallen in previous rebellions.