BAMAKO, Mali — Mali's crisis deepened Wednesday, as officials in the fabled northern city of Timbuktu confirmed that the Islamic rebel faction that seized control of the town over the weekend has announced it will impose sharia law.
Rebels in the country's distant north have taken advantage of the power vacuum created last month when renegade soldiers in the capital of Bamako overthrew the nation's democratically elected leader. In the chaos that followed the March 21 coup, they advanced on strategic towns in the north, including the ancient city of Timbuktu, located over 620 miles from the capital.
The ethnic Tuareg rebels included a secular faction fighting for independence, and an Islamic wing, Ansar Dine, whose reclusive leader called a meeting of all the imams in the city on Tuesday to make his announcement.
"He had the meeting to make his message to the people known, that sharia law is now going to be applied," said the Mayor of Timbuktu Ousmane Halle, who was reached by telephone. "When there is a strongman in front of you, you listen to him. You can't react," he said, when asked what the reaction was of the imams of a historic town known for its religious pluralism and its moderate interpretation of Islam.
"Things are going to heat up here. Our women are not going to wear the veil just like that," said the mayor.
Kader Kalil, the director of a communal radio station who was asked to cover the meeting and who later interviewed the Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghali, confirmed that sharia had been imposed.
He said in addition to the wearing of the veil, thieves will be punished by having their hands cut off and adulterers will be stoned to death.
In a show of force, the Islamic rebels drove through the town in a tank-like armored-personnel carrier.
More than 90 percent of the city's roughly 300 Christians have fled since the city fell to the rebels on Sunday, said Baptist Pastor Nock Ag Info Yattara., who is now in Bamako.