A newly formed group of armed Arab fighters tightened its grip on the northern Malian desert city of Timbuktu on Friday, witnesses said.
The push into Timbuktu by the so-called National Liberation Front of Azawad (FNLA) came a day after west African leaders agreed to send a military force into coup-hit and divided Mali, though those troops will be based in the capital Bamako for now.
Witnesses said around 100 vehicles loaded with fighters poured into Timbuktu on Friday, after they seized control of entries to the east and south of the city a day earlier.
"They are armed to the teeth," a Malian security source said.
The new group announced its existence April 8, saying it was made up of about 500 men who do not want to see northern Mali secede, nor do they support an Islamist agenda.
This differs from the hotchpotch of outlaws and other groups that swept the region over the past month, with some Tuareg Arab fighters declaring the north an independent state, while Islamists tried to impose strict sharia Muslim law.
"We came here to defend and protect our region," FNLA member Ahmed Ould Mamoud said.
The group is headed by Mohamed Lamine Ould Sidatt, a regional elected official, and its military operations are directed by a lieutenant colonel who defected from the Malian army, Housseine Khoulam.
A witness said the group was in the process of taking control of the civil protection building. There were no immediate reports of gunfire or injuries.
At an extraordinary summit in Ivory Coast on Thursday, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided to send troops to both Mali and Guinea-Bissau, which also has seen a coup in recent weeks.
Officials said the troops would help with Mali's transition to civilian rule, after a group of soldiers ceded power following their March 22 coup.
There was no immediate indication any international troops would be sent to try to wrest Mali's north from rebel hands.
Much of northern Mali, an area spanning more land mass than France, remains in the hands of two other armed groups -- Islamists Ansar Dine and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Mali's main Tuareg rebel group.
The entries in the north and west of Timbuktu remained in the control of the two groups Friday.
The MNLA earlier declared independence in the north, a vast swathe of desert it calls Azawad, which it captured along with Ansar Dine in the disarray following the coup.
Ansar Dine subsequently took control of Timbuktu, saying it rejects independence for the north and is fighting for Islam and to impose sharia.
Security sources say Ansar Dine has fallen under the influence of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qaida's north African wing, which is holding several Westerners hostage.
Malian soldiers seized power because they wanted the government to do a better job of fighting the years-long rebellion in the north. Their tactic backfired disastrously, with the rebels quick to exploit the Bamako power vacuum.
Parties opposed to the coup, grouped in the United Front for Democracy and the Republic, hailed Friday the ECOWAS decision to send troops and set a deadline of a year for new presidential and parliamentary elections in Mali.
Timbuktu is an ancient desert trading city famed in part for its remoteness in the Sahara Desert.
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