Dozens of militants loyal to an al-Qaida-linked group in northern Mali descended upon the fabled city of Timbuktu on Thursday following meetings before talks with the Malian government, witnesses and officials said.
The unannounced arrival of the Ansar Dine militants alongside allies who have left other groups to now join them demonstrates Ansar Dine's growing clout as it prepares to hold negotiations with the government.
The group sidelined secular rebels earlier this year and was able to solidify its hold over Timbuktu, a city once popular with European tourists where Islamists now carry out public whippings and amputations and even an execution.
Mahi Toure, a local journalist, said he saw more than 90 vehicles arrive on the northern side of town Thursday night, a mixture of militants from Ansar Dine and al-Qaida's North Africa branch.
Resident Hamidou Yattara said the heavily armed men also included former fighters from a secular group sidelined by the Islamists earlier this year known as the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA.
A security official in Bamako who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media said the Islamists had been meeting this week about 70 kilometers (45 miles) northeast of Timbuktu.
"They were discussing the strategy they're going to adopt for negotiations between the group Ansar Dine and the Malian state," the official said.
Mali was plunged into chaos in March when mutinous soldiers overthrew the democratically elected president, creating a power vacuum in the distant north that allowed the Islamists to seize control of the north.
A proposed regional military intervention to retake northern Mali still awaits final approval from the United Nations.
Meanwhile, the country's interim civilian government was thrown into disarray earlier this week when soldiers arrested the prime minister, who later resigned on state television at 4 a.m.
Newly selected Prime Minister Diango Cissoko was sworn into office earlier Thursday. The African Union welcomed his appointment, though the political developments drew sharp criticism from the international community that said it showed Mali's military still has not removed itself from politics.