BAMAKO (AFP) - Islamist fighters in north Mali have driven Tuareg rebels from their final stronghold, according to witnesses, as the country grapples for solutions to win back territory from the jihadists.
Mali's embattled interim leaders are discussing the formation of a unity government to better deal with a crisis which has seen the destruction of ancient World Heritage treasures in Timbuktu by the hardline Islamists.
The Islamists have destroyed ancient Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, an endangered World Heritage Site, which they see as idolatrous, prompting a chorus of grief and outrage at home and abroad.
The United States expressed outrage at the destruction of ancient sites, calling it an "assault" on African heritage.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called for an "immediate end to these destructive and irreversible acts" and urged all sides to protect the "invaluable cultural heritage" of the sites.
She added that Washington supports the mediation efforts of West African countries and the African Union in returning civilian rule to the country and crushing the rebellion in the north.
In Nouakchott, army chiefs from Mauritania, Algeria, Mali and Niger met on Wednesday to look at ways to help the country win back an area larger than France which has been run by armed groups for over three months.
One of these groups, the Tuareg separatist rebels who spearheaded the collapse of one of West Africa's most stable democracies, have now been fully routed in their own rebellion by the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists.
"The Tuareg rebels were driven out by the Islamists from their last bastion, Ansogo, situated 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Gao," said a local government official in the town.
He said that while the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) had still controlled part of the zone, "now it's finished, they have run off into the bush".
"Now our whole region is in the hands of Islamists."
The information was confirmed by Malian doctor Albert Djigue, who on Wednesday drove to the city of Gao from the Niger border.
"From the Niger border, passing through Ansogo before arriving in Gao, I didn't see a single MNLA fighter. They have all left. It is the Islamists who are in charge," he said.
Djigue said the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) had reinforced their positions, taking over the municipality's public works building as well as the Centre for Educational Organisation.
This latest defeat means the Tuareg rebels no longer control any town in northern Mali, and are moving through the Islamist-controlled area in small groups, seeking survival rather than combat.
The MNLA was formed in late 2011, including members of separatist rebel groups who were active in the 1990s.
Boosted by the return of heavily armed Tuareg who had gone to fight for Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, the rebels launched their rebellion in January and quickly overwhelmed a demoralised and poorly equipped Malian army.
A group of low-ranking soldiers, angry and frustrated, carried out a coup on March 22 against a government they said was incompetent in dealing with the rebellion.
But the coup only worsened the situation as the unmanned north became easy prey and fell to rebel groups in a matter of days.
The Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) backed by MUJAO, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), appeared fighting on the flanks of the Tuareg rebels in an unclear alliance.
The MNLA was swiftly pushed aside as the jihadists planted their black flags in key cities.
The ideologies and objectives of the armed groups were always at odds: The MNLA want independence for their traditional homeland which they call Azawad, and the Islamists want a state run on strict Islamic law.
Interim authorities who took over from the junta have proved powerless to deal with the occupation, and West African mediators have given them until July 31 to create a "unity government" with a clear timeline to exit the crisis.
After the destruction of the latest two mausolea on Tuesday, members of Timbuktu's Arab community has set up an armed brigade to protect the remaining tombs of ancient Muslim saints.
"We are not going to allow people who know nothing about Islam to come and destroy our treasures," said Tahel Ould Sidy, leader of the unit.