BAMAKO Tuareg rebels seeking to carve out a desert homeland in Mali's north have taken control of the key garrison town of Tessalit after a weeks-long siege forced soldiers and civilians to evacuate, Mali's government said on Sunday.
Soldiers defending the town, one of the government's few footholds in the area, retreated overnight towards the Algerian border after attempts by the military to resupply them earlier this month were beaten back, military sources said.
"Faced with repeated attacks that made it difficult to resupply the civilian population, the military command decided...to organise evacuation convoys and to escort civilians to other garrisons," the government said in a statement read over state radio.
It said some 1,500 civilians, mostly women and children, were in the town during the siege.
"Thus, the military command, in a responsible manner, decided, based on the operations, to temporarily evacuate the camp at Tessalit," it added.
A military source said commanders in Tessalit had warned Mali's military they would be forced to withdraw if supplies and reinforcements did not arrive by Saturday, after weeks of fending off the well-armed rebels.
"Around 1900 GMT (on Saturday), the military shut down their radio communications and headed to the town of Bordj Elmoktar (in Algeria)," he said. "During their retreat, some Malian army soldiers were taken prisoner by the rebels of MNLA."
The MNLA told Reuters in an emailed statement it had captured armoured vehicles, troop carriers and heavy and light weapons from the base after the Malian soldiers retreated.
Loss of the base leaves government forces with little presence in the remote border region, a major setback as the rebels seek to establish control of the vast north.
The MNLA have been bolstered by heavily armed Malian Tuareg returning from fighting alongside pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya. The clashes have added a new layer of insecurity to a zone awash with smugglers and plagued by fighters linked to al Qaeda and is expected to complicate presidential elections due in April.
Dozens of people have been reported killed and more than 100,000 people have fled their homes since the rebels launched their offensive in mid-January.
The government has repeated charges that the MNLA rebels were fighting alongside drug dealers, al Qaeda factions and other Islamists. The rebels have denied the allegations.
A U.S. embassy spokeswoman in Bamako said in early March a U.S. aircraft had supplied food and water to Tessalit on February 14 but no further action had been taken.