They put up their black flags over the three main cities of the north, Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, and strutted in the streets. Rare television pictures shot in the northern cities showed tough-looking men in turbans driving pick-up trucks, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons as crowds looked on nervously.
Some rebels grabbed the chance to loot, setting fire to buildings and abducting young women, according to refugees. Others — or perhaps the same ones – were determined to impose a Taliban-style Islamic rule, ordering men into the mosques to pray and closing bars and discos.
Communication with the north was difficult, but reports from people contacted by telephone were alarming. Youssouf Maga Touré, a manager at a transportation company in Gao, described desperation as shops were looted and food supplies ran out.
“Thousands of people will die in the coming days by hunger,” he said.
“We have hundreds of people, mainly women, trying to escape. Our buses will not come here. Drivers are afraid for their own lives.”
Rebels patrolled the streets, he said. “They don’t speak with the local people. They just put their flags on the main government offices. Some of them don’t even speak our language.”
With the government gone, it was not clear exactly who had seized power — “nobody knows who is in control”, said one worried resident of Timbuktu. But most of the rebels seemed to be ethnic Tuaregs loyal to the Mouvement National de liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), who may not number many more than 1000 fighters. They say they want a free, independent, but not religious state, which they call Azawad.
Their core was formed by a group of Malian Tuareg soldiers who had been part of Colonel Gaddafi’s army for years, and in some cases decades. Last summer they realised that he was doomed and deserted his army, with large amounts of his weapons which they secretly transported across the desert to Mali. There they set up the MNLA, reviving a moribund Tuareg rebellion against Mali’s government which started at independence from France in 1960. In January they launched an insurrection under the command of Mohammed Ag Najm, a former officer in Gaddafi’s army.
His men had fought Gaddafi’s losing wars in Chad, Lebanon and against rebels in Libya last year. This time they wanted to fight for their own state, but not for religion – but they needed the support of Tuareg jihadis who were fighting the Mali government. At a tense meeting last autumn the Gaddafi deserters became allied to a group of jihadis led by a rebel called Iyad Ag Ghali, a shadowy figure who some are now calling the master of the Sahara, perhaps permaturely.
Mr Ghali, believed to be in his fifties, has been a power in Tuareg politics for decades, but became shunned by the mainstream after finding Allah in the 1990s under the tutelage of Pakistani preachers who may have been linked to Osama bin Laden.
He refuses to shake hands with a woman, and has a reputation for stern religious fervour, although he is also regarded as hospitable and generous like most Tuareg. His links to extremists are troubling; he was thrown out of Saudi Arabia because he was regarded as too extreme.
Back in Mali he carved out a role as a negotiator in some of the Sahara’s high-profile kidnappings of recent years — where the usual ransom for a European has been between €3 and €10 million.
Since he became a middle man, helping resolving kidnappings, he has become a wealthy man.
In the Tuareg rebellion he was the junior partner, yet his prestige has grown. After the MNLA refused his offer of leadership last year, Mr Ghali set up his own smaller militia, Ansar al Din. It is not clear how big a role they have played in the fighting, but Mr Ghali has proved adept at political theatre, arriving in both Gao and Timbuktu ahead of MNLA leaders and stealing their glory.
With the government ejected, his relationship with them is clearly under strain. “I am not for independence,” Mr Ghali has said. “It is Sharia I want for my people.”
His natural partner is al-Qaeda, and in Timbuktu he arrived with three of the senior emirs of AQIM – Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Ben Mokhtar, and Abou Hamame, men who have carved out reputations for ruthlessness and greed.
They sense their chance in the chaos. But the desert may not be fertile territory for them. Youssou Guindo, a shop owner from Gao contacted by telephone, said: “Mali is a secular country, we do not need Sharia. We are free to pray. If they want Sharia they can apply it where they want, but not in Mali.” Peter Tinti, who was until 2008 a United States Peace Corps volunteer in Gao, said some of his old friends had been in touch by twitter, expressing fear about their new masters.
“Most people, even most Tuareg, are probably not going to be enthusiastic about the rebels,” he said. “Malians are proud of being a democracy. Trying to turn it into an Islamic state, that is going to be anathema to most people. Gao is a small, conservative town, but it also has bars and hotels and people are pretty tolerant.”
As the dust settles in the desert after its most extraordinary week in decades, there is growing sense of dread about what happens next. Neighbouring governments fear the contagion of rebellion will spread to their own Tuareg minorities. Foreign governments fear al-Qaeda getting established in the desert.
Mali’s government in the capital Bamako is in total chaos after the coup, and nobody expects its soldiers, chased out of the north, to be back any time soon. The rebel leaders are jubilant, but some think the MNLA may have declared independence prematurely. The jihadis want to march on the south, but that seems far-fetched.
The jihadis are under pressure, with imams in Timbuktu, one of the leading Islamic cities in Africa, telling the faithful that Mr Ghali is an upstart with no credibility as a religious leader. The MNLA fighters are now reportedly making ready for a showdown with AQIM and Ansar al Din. Mali’s bloodletting may have only just begun.