Rebels have attacked Mali's strategic northern city of Gao, a day after they took the provincial capital of Kidal, witnesses and an official said. The move deepens the crisis in the landlocked nation at the feet of the Sahara in western Africa after a coup earlier this month.
The two towns are major prizes for the Tuareg rebels, who launched an insurgency in January that was fuelled by the flow of arms from the fall of neighbouring Libya, where many of the rebels had been on the payroll of
ex-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Gao is around 1,200km from the capital of Bamako, where junior officers overthrew the elected government and claimed power 10 days ago.
If Gao falls, the only other major city in Mali's north in government hands is Timbuktu. On Saturday, Baba Bore, a radio programmer at the local Radio Alfarouk station in the ancient city, said gunshots were heard earlier in the day.
The families of military members stationed at the city's two camps had evacuated, expecting to be attacked. Shops had closed and checkpoints had been erected on all sides of nearby Timbuktu.
In Gao, a journalist at Radio Aadar said the attack began early Saturday.
"There has been heavy fighting all morning and it's still going on now," Ibrahima Ly said at midday. "We can hear heavy arms fire and machine guns."
Most of the fighting is just outside town. There is some fighting near the military camp to the east of town. There has been some fighting in the town itself too but that has been quite light. Everyone is scared and locked up at
A government source in Niger who is talking to both sides of the conflict also confirmed the attack. He asked for anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The force is expected to meet more resistance in Gao, where the majority of troops are from the Bambara tribe. In Kidal, the majority of troops were Tuareg.
Support for coup
Mali's junta promised on Saturday to quickly come up with new proposals aimed at handing power back to civilians after last week's widely condemned coup.
"We do not want to confiscate power," Colonel Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, a senior member of the group that staged the coup, told a news conference in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, after talks with Burkina President Blaise Compaore, the main mediator in the crisis.
Facing diplomatic sanctions by neighbours as well as the rebellion in the north, he promised to return to Bamako and to try to produce proposals "very quickly" for a power handover that would meet international approval.
"We agree there must be a regular, normal constitutional state of affairs," he said.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, the current head of the ECOWAS group, told local state television that a previously announced regional stand-by force of 2,000 could intervene against the rebels once civilians were back in power.
Mali is now facing severe economic sanctions over the coup. The coup leaders has been given a 72-hour deadline to hand power back to civilians, which expires on Monday. The coup leaders are sending a delegation to Burkina Faso on Saturday to negotiate with regional powers, who are calling for the sanctions.
ECOWAS has said that they will close the country's land borders and freeze its bank account in the regional central bank if the coup leaders do not restore the country's constitutional order.
Many Malians, however, have taken to the streets in recent days to show their support for the coup.
At a stadium in the capital, several hundred people were bussed in by political parties that are supporting the coup leaders for a rally in support of the coup. Mali was considered one of the few established democracies in the region, and last week's military takeover has erased 21 years of democratic gains.
Those supporting the coup say that Mali's democratic reputation is an illusion.
They point to the widespread corruption that characterised the regime of ousted leader President Amadou Toumani Toure, who went into hiding on the day of the coup and has not been seen since.
They held up signs that said: "No to the facade of democracy".
Elsewhere in Bamako, residents worried ECOWAS may start applying sanctions from Monday formed long queues in front of banks in the hope of getting cash out.
"I want a united and undivided Mali, that's what I would like. So I think with the problem of ECOWAS, they [ECOWAS] should go help sort out this crisis in the north. Then after that we can go to elections," said a man after withdrawing $60.
Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, the man who led the coup, has said that he "understands" the position of the regional body, but begged Mali's neighbours to deepen their analysis and to examine the reasons that led to the coup, especially the botched operations in the country's north that cost the lives of soldiers.
Appeals for calm
Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from the capital Bamako, said the grand mufti of Mali had appealed for calm and urged the rebels to lay down their arms.
He said he had spoken to coup leaders who said they were waiting for the right time to react to the developments in Gao.
"If Gao falls that would give the rebels ... a chance to claim that they've managed to control most of the eastern parts of the country and start moving west, where they have been fighting for decades to establish an independent country for themselves," he said.
Alessandra Giuffrida, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told Al Jazeera the rebels' "arsenal is very well equipped".
"They're in a position to take over territories that they would like to be free and independent from the Malian government," she said.