Separatist Tuareg rebels in Mali have attacked the strategic northern town of Gao, hours after taking the provincial capital of Kidal.
The military scrambled helicopter gunships as the rebels entered Gao in pick-up trucks loaded with heavy arms Saturday, while gunfire was also heard around the main military camp to the west of the town, Reuters reports.
With a population of 87,000, Gao serves as the biggest garrison for the north, and lies just 1,000 kilometers from land-locked Mali’s capital, Bamako, according to the Associated Press.
Saturday’s attack came a day after rebels – fighting alongside Islamist fighters – captured the key town of Kidal, and a week after soldiers ousted the country's democratically elected president and seized power, saying they needed more arms to fight the Tuareg rebellion.
On Friday coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo requested foreign help to fight the advancing rebels and a smaller Islamic group called the Ansar Edine, which wants to impose Sharia, the Agence France-Presse reported.
"Our army needs the help of Mali's friends to save the civilian population and Mali's territorial integrity," Sanogo told journalists in Bamako, the Malian capital.
But neighboring states have so far failed to respond to his plea, and given him until Monday to introduce steps to hand back power to civilians or see the borders to his country shut down.
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Three officials from Mali’s military leadership have travelled to neighboring Burkina Faso for talks with President Blaise Compaore, while the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) regional body has placed a peacekeeping force on standby, according to the BBC.
Ethnic Tuareg fighters, uniting under the banner of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) and demanding independence for Mali’s northern region, began launching attacks on towns and army bases in January, breaking two years of relative peace between the Tuareg and the government.
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