Radical Islamists tightened their grip on northern Mali yesterday, ordering women to wear veils in fabled Timbuktu, as the nation’s junta began to feel the bite of sanctions following its coup.

Timbuktu has passed its first night under sharia

The Islamists who seized control of the trading hub over the weekend alongside Tuareg rebels have since chased out their allies and declared to residents and religious leaders that they were imposing sharia law.

“Timbuktu has passed its first night under sharia, everything is calm in town,” civil servant Saliou Thiam said.

Three of the four leaders of Al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) were in Timbuktu yesterday, security and religious sources in the city said.

Residents reported women in the normally secular city that held a major rock music festival in January were yesterday wearing veils and none were wearing trousers.Since a band of low-ranking soldiers ousted Mali’s government on March 22, various rebel groups have worked together to seize the vast north, an area roughly the size of France, but the factions have very different aims.

The United Nations Security Council discussed the Mali crisis yesterday as the country that was until recently considered an African democratic success story slipped deeper into chaos under the junta.

Frozen out by the international community, the junta on Monday was slapped with crippling sanctions from its neighbours demanding a return to constitutional rule. The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) slapped the vast landlocked country that depends heavily on the import of fuel and basic goods from surrounding nations with a total embargo and cut off the putschists from the regional central bank, affecting their ability to pay public wages.

In Bamako, long lines formed at petrol stations shortly after Ecowas announced the embargo, while other stations closed early, fearing looting by soldiers.

“We hear there is an embargo, we are afraid of shortages so we are taking precautions,” said a youth who wanted to fill half a dozen empty bottles.

The junta yesterday sent a delegation to Nigeria, where Ecowas officials could offer the putschists amnesty in exchange for relinquishing power, a foreign ministry source in Abuja said.

As the military junta struggled with the intensifying crisis, armed Islamists in the north handed out food and supplies that they seized from humanitarian organisations to residents of Timbuktu, sources said.

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