BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali’s army has abandoned bases around the northern town of Gao to rebels while the leaders of a coup faced a deadline to start handing back power or face sanctions.
The defeat in the key garrison town was the latest for the army after a lightning 48-hour advance by northern rebels seeking to capitalize in chaos in the West African country after the March 22 coup.
“Given the proximity of the camps to residential areas, our forces decided not to fight,” a statement by junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, read out on state television, said.
Civilian and local government sources said dozens of army vehicles streamed out of the main army camps around Goa, heading south towards the capital Bamako some 1,000 km (600 miles) away.
If rebels go on to fully take Gao and target Timbuktu, the last big northern centre, their goal of securing a desert territory bigger than France will be in their grasp.
The defeat at the hands of the heavily armed rebels piled pressure on Mali’s new junta leaders who have until midnight on Sunday to start handing back power or expose their land-locked West African country to economic suffocation by neighbors threatening to shut its borders.
Mid-ranking officers ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure in protest at not having adequate weaponry to tackle an alliance of nomadic and Islamist rebels boosted by heavy arms spilling out of Libya from last year’s war.
But the internationally condemned putsch has backfired, plunging the country into chaos and emboldening rebels to seize key towns in their campaign to carve out a desert homeland in Mali’s remote north, already a haven for local al Qaeda agents.
While coup leaders won early support from many Malians fed up with Toure’s rule, the latest military defeats and the sheer scale of foreign disapproval have weakened their position.
“Everywhere it is burning. Mali cannot fight on all fronts at the same time ... Let us put our personal quarrels aside,” Siaka Diakite, Secretary-General of the UNTM trade union, said in a statement backed by anti-putsch political parties.
Diakite called on Sanogo, a hitherto obscure U.S.-trained army captain, to agree an exit plan before the deadline imposed by the 15-state ECOWAS group of West African countries for a return of power to civilians.
Aside from a threat to close borders to a country largely dependent on fuel imports, ECOWAS has vowed to starve Mali of funds from the central bank of the regional monetary union, and slap asset freezes and travel bans on individual junta members.
Banks in Bamako put a limit on withdrawals on Saturday in anticipation of a run on their cash stocks on Monday, while shares in mining companies in Africa’s third largest gold producer have plunged due to the unrest.
On Saturday junta members hinted they were ready for compromise, announcing after talks with Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the official mediator in the crisis, that they would make new proposals for a transition to civilian rule.
“We do not want to confiscate power,” Colonel Moussa Sinko Coulibaly told reporters in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, after talks with Burkina President Blaise Compaore, named by West African grouping ECOWAS as main mediator in the crisis.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said he expected Toure, who has said he is safe in an undisclosed location in Mali, to see out the remaining two months of his mandate before a transitional national unity government was named.
“Then elections should be held between 21 and 40 days later. It is up to the political class to see if that is possible,” Ouattara, the ECOWAS head, told Ivorian television.
Writing by Mark John; Editing by Michael Roddy