To the din of heavy weaponry looted from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's arsenals, Tuareg rebels rode out of the desert to attack the ancient trading city of Timbuktu on Sunday morning, completing a blistering blitzkrieg that has seen them capture the three largest towns in northern Mali in three days. After laying waste to an abandoned military camp, the rebels entered Timbuktu around midday, snarling about in pickups, firing delightedly in the air and planting their black-and-white flag over the offices of the provincial governor, the mayor and the military commandant. They had, they pronounced, lifted Mali's "occupation" and would henceforth defend and secure Azawad the name they gave Mali's northern desert "for the happiness of its people." Within a period of 72 hours, they have seized control of an area the size of California and Texas combined.
Yet for all the clamor of battle, it was a quiet word that proved most effective as the Tuareg cut a deal to avoid bloodshed. Government troops garrisoned in Timbuktu may well have fled overnight, but a militia of ethnic Arabs loyal to the regime ensconced in the capital, Bamako, had remained on the ramparts. Fear and uncertainty wracked inhabitants, and many "even young boys," according to resident Abu Bakri ag Moha began arming themselves to battle the Tuareg early Sunday morning, bringing out old Kalashnikovs and bolt-action rifles. But "the deal is the rebels ... take Timbuktu and fly their flag for three days, then after they must leave, with the Arabs in control," one local explained by phone. Time will tell if that's the exact contract. But for now Timbuktu has fallen.
The conquerors lost little time in pillaging banks, police stations and government offices, but for all that, "the population [doesn't] have any problems," another resident said. "The rebels haven't done anything to hurt them. They say, 'We're just here for something, and after we will go.'" What plight civilians face in the longer term is harder to say, with an estimated 200,000 displaced by the fighting so far. Oussman ag Isa, an inhabitant of Kidal, the northern administrative center that fell on March 30, said the town was almost deserted and that "people are very hungry, there's no food, nothing." The rebels, he added, were still in town.
In one of the more extensive eyewitness accounts of the desert blitzkrieg to emerge, Mahamed ag Hameleck, 24, a blacksmith from Gao, a garrison town that fell Saturday, tells TIME how he was sipping a thimble-size glass of tea in his uncle's camel-hide tent when gunfire erupted in the distance. After 45 minutes, pickups began to rumble around the Château neighborhood where the tent was pitched, and the rebels flooded in "crying 'Azawad! Azawad!' and shooting in the air. There [was] nobody in the street. Everybody ran away and closed shop," ag Hameleck says. "They broke the customs office and took everything inside." Residents were too terrified to venture out for food, and many went hungry as the shooting continued.
Around noon, ag Hameleck says, he elbowed his way onto the last bus south. "I can tell you there was not even luggage inside," he says, glancing down at the floor as he speaks. "Everybody took only what they could take in their hands ... Everyone pushed, everyone wanted to get in ... I was just lucky." As he arrived in Bamako, word reached him by phone that the rebels were distributing food, including U.S.-military-issued rations, looted from Gao's abandoned garrison.
The problem for ag Hameleck, as for all displaced Tuareg civilians, is the relatively pale color of his skin. With anger simmering in southern Mali at the military setbacks and the fallen soldiers, Tuareg civilians have become an obvious target. Ag Hameleck has already changed his traditional indigo turban and dazzling blue robes for jeans and a shirt and has been banned by the friends he's staying with from going out onto the street for fear of attack. He wants, he says, to move onto a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, where "you don't get into trouble for your tribe or the color of your skin."
Even as ag Hameleck spoke, the first prospect of a peace deal emerged, after Captain Amadou Sanogo, the leader of Mali's increasingly hapless junta, offered an olive branch to the rebels, saying: "We have inherited ... a desperate situation, we're trying to make the best of it. We've already dispatched emissaries on the ground to try to obtain a cease-fire." Later the same day, an envoy in Timbuktu told Agence France-Presse that he had made contact with a senior rebel commander, Mohamed Najim, who was ready to negotiate.
The fall of the northern cities has been an enormous setback for Bamako, where a cadre of junior soldiers seized power earlier this month in a largely bloodless coup. The putsch, sparked by discontent at the government's handling of the Tuareg insurgency, has backfired spectacularly as the northern rebels have exploited the political uncertainty in Bamako and the army's unclear chain of command to maximum effect. In another reversal, Sanogo sought to stave off crippling economic sanctions by regional powers allied with the displaced government by promising "to re-establish, from this day on, the constitution of the Republic of Mali ... as well as the institutions of the republic." How this is compatible with his apparent intent to oversee the country's transition back to democracy is unclear, but it's a welcome sign that the chaos that has engulfed Mali political and martial may now be headed toward some kind of resolution.