The Touareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) on Sunday captured Mali's heritage town of Timbuktu after taking two other important towns of Kidal and Gao.
Timbuktu fell into the hands of Tuareg rebels, marking a milestone in their repeated uprisings since the 1960s for an independent Azawad land comprising Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
For the first time, the rebels have the three towns under control.
Local witnesses said the Malian army fought alongside Arab militia in Timbuku, who gave support to the army in defense of their own interest in the region.
However, many believed the fall of Timbuku would be a matter of hours after rebels on Saturday seized Gao, where the command was set up by the military against the rebel advances since mid- January.
At 4:00 a.m. local time on Sunday, the MNLA fighters surrounded the town of Timbuktu and seized it before long.
"Will the resistance of the Malian soldiers hold in Timbuktu?" many of the residents of the town asked after the entry of the MNLA fighters.
"The moment the town of Gao which had a military base was taken, there was no need to hope that Timbuktu will not go to the rebels, " a local analyst told Xinhua, preferring not to be identified.
The view was shared by many from Timbuktu to the Malian capital Bamako.
"This was expected. Timbuktu is now under the control of the rebels," a public servant working in the ancient town said in a distressed and saddened tone.
"I am now in civilian cloths and living with a friend. I am not a coward, but it's because I know I do not have the proper weapons to fight with. This is why I am now wearing my civilian cloths," a Malian soldier who did not wish to be named told Xinhua.
"The worst thing is that some people took advantage of the MNLA attack to steal from shops in Timbuktu," a resident of the town told Xinhua.
With the fall of the northern towns, Mali's military junta is facing increasing pressure from two fronts: the military offensive by the rebels and the demand by the 15-member West African bloc ECOWAS to hand over power.
On Sunday, the junta reinstated the country's constitution of 1992 to pave the way for a transition leading to the presidential election, without clarifying who will head the transition and when to hold the polls.
The junta had previously sent its envoy to Burkina Faso for talks with President Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, who was named the mediator of the crisis in Mali after contributing to the settlement of similar issues in regional countries like Guinea.
The junta reinstated the old constitution just hours before the expiry of a 72-hour ultimatum given by ECOWAS to the junta. The bloc, which has already suspended Mali, threatened to close down the border of land-locked Mali to cut off its economic lifeline at a summit held last week in Cote d'Ivoire.
Meanwhile, the junta sent an emissary to negotiate a cease-fire with the rebels.
ECOWAS is scheduled to hold another summit on Monday in Senegal to make a decision.
While pressing the junta to surrender power, ECOWAS has expressed deep concern over the invasion of Tuareg rebels, indicating a military intervention in Mali.
"We respect the integrity of Mali's territory. We shall use all means possible to stop this rebellion and to ensure that Mali regains control of all of her territory. This is a duty for the entire sub-region," Cote d'Ivoire President Alassane Ouattarahe said on Sunday.
Ouattara, who holds the presidency of ECOWAS, said several presidents in the region had agreed to support an initiative to fight against the rebellion in northern Mali.
The regional bloc is reportedly considering sending 2,000 troops to northern Mali.
Tuareg rebels apparently took advantage of the coup on March 22, when the junta toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure, citing his failure to provide means for the military to curb the rebellion in the north.
UNESCO chief warns world heritage site in Mali under threat
Head of the UN culture agency Irina Bokova on Monday voiced concern about the risk posed by fighting around the World Heritage site of Timbuktu in the north of Mali.
"Timbuktu's outstanding earthen architectural wonders that are the great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, must be safeguarded," Bokova said
"Along with the site's 16 cemeteries and mausolea, they are essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage," the director-general argued.
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