Radical Islamists tightened their grip on northern Mali on Tuesday, ordering women to wear veils in fabled Timbuktu, as the nation’s junta began to feel the bite of sanctions following its coup.
The Islamists who seized control of the fabled trading hub over the weekend alongside Tuareg rebels have since chased out their allies and declared to residents and religious leaders that they were imposing sharia law.
Three of the four leaders of Al-Qaeda’s north Africa branch, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were in Timbuktu on Tuesday, security and religious sources in the city said.
Residents reported women in the normally secular city that held a major rock music festival in January were on Tuesday wearing veils and none were wearing trousers.
Since a band of low-ranking soldiers ousted Mali’s government on March 22, various rebel groups have worked together to seize the vast north, an area roughly the size of France, but the factions have very different aims.
The United Nations Security Council will discuss the Mali crisis later on Tuesday as the country that was until recently considered an African democratic success story slipped deeper into chaos under the junta.
Frozen out by the international community, the junta on Monday was slapped with crippling sanctions from its neighbors demanding a return to constitutional rule.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) slapped the vast landlocked country that depends heavily on the import of fuel and basic goods from surrounding nations with a total embargo and cut off the putschists from the regional central bank, affecting their ability to pay public wages.
In Bamako, long lines formed at petrol stations shortly after ECOWAS announced the embargo, while other stations closed early, fearing looting by soldiers.
The junta on Tuesday sent a delegation to Nigeria, where ECOWAS officials could offer the putschists amnesty in exchange for relinquishing power, a foreign ministry source in Abuja said.
As the military junta struggled with the intensifying crisis, armed Islamists in the north handed out food and supplies that they seized from humanitarian organizations to residents of Timbuktu, sources said.
Officials from the regional food security office linked to the agriculture ministry and local Red Cross confirmed on condition of anonymity that the goods being distributed were forcibly taken from their stocks.
The Islamists had been fighting with the Tuareg, but on Monday they chased their erstwhile allies out of Timbuktu, flanked by the notorious AQIM leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
AQIM chiefs Belmokhtar, Abou Zeid and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam met with Malian Islamist leaders and are staying at the Timbuktu military camp, now under rebel control.
The fighting in northern Mali began in mid-January by the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), which wants independence for its homeland in the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
The Islamist Ansar Dine, led by its notorious commander Iyad Ag Ghaly, wants to implement sharia law in the mostly Muslim but secular state.
A powerful player in northern Mali, Ag Ghaly and his fighters have placed their black jihadist flag around Timbuktu, which in the 16th century was a trading and intellectual capital.
The UN cultural agency UNESCO called on the Malian authorities and on the warring factions to respect the desert country’s heritage and the “outstanding architectural wonders” in Timbuktu, including ancient manuscripts and earthen buildings such as a nearly 700-year old mosque.
Paris said Tuesday the Tuareg rebels were approaching the central town of Mopti where hundreds fled in panic on Monday as they saw soldiers fleeing their posts amid the rebel advance.
More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes by the fighting and aid groups have warned that the combination of civil war and drought could lead to one of the continent’s worst humanitarian emergencies.