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Timbuktu falls to Mali rebels

Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters have seized control of the historic desert town of Timbuktu after a rapid advance through Mali's north.

Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters seized the ancient town of Timbuktu today, after moving rapidly through northern Mali in the chaos following a military coup.

The rebels also took control of the keys towns of Kidal and Gao in recent days. Timbuktu, located about 620 miles from the capital Bamako, was the last city in Mali's north not under rebel control.

Gunfire was heard on the outskirts of Timbuktu, and the rebels attacked an army base that government troops had already abandoned, the BBC reported.

The BBC said rebels were mixing with Malian Arab militia who have been defending the town since troops fled.

The Associated Press reported that Timbuktu residents were "cowering" in their homes, and could hear automatic gunfire and blasts from heavy arms.

More from GlobalPost: Mali Tuareg rebels take control of the garrison town of Gao

Soldiers in Mali, frustrated over their government's handling of the Tuareg rebellion in the north, seized control of the country March 22 in a coup just one month before Mali's scheduled presidential election.

Timbuktu, with its centuries-old mud mosques and ancient manuscripts held in the town's libraries, was until recently a tourist hotspot. Many visitors would come for a famous festival of Malian music, the Festival in the Desert, which attracted U2 frontman Bono in January.

But visitors have been detered by tourist kidnappings by the North African branch of Al Qaeda.

Tuareg rebels earlier today confirmed they had taken control of Gao and said they had encircled Timbuktu, Agence France-Presse reported.

"The MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement) has just ended Mali's occupation of the region of Gao by seizing and taking control of the city (Gao) this Saturday," the rebel group said in a statement posted on its website, according to AFP.

MNLA fighters "are encircling the city of Timbuktu to dislodge Mali's remaining political and military administration," the statement said.

More from GlobalPost: Rebels seize northern Mali town of Kidal

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/africa/120401/mali-rebels-timbuktu-surrounded-tuareg-rebellion