BAMAKO - An Arab militia has pulled out of Mali's desert city of Timbuktu, hours after entering the town, amid power struggles in the lawless region more than a month after a coup shook the country.
A vast area about the size of France has been contested by Tuareg separatists, Islamic extremists and other irregular forces in the power vacuum that followed a March 22 putsch in the capital in Mali's south.
A new group, the National Liberation Front of Azawad (FNLA), rolled into the fabled Sahara city of Timbuktu on Friday with about 100 vehicles packed with men described as "armed to the teeth" by a security source.
The group has declared it opposes both the secession of northern Mali - as demanded by the Tuareg nomads, many of whom are hardened veterans of the Libyan conflict - and the imposition of strict Islamic law.
However, the FNLA later said that militant group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had demanded it leave town.
"(Abdelhamid) Abu Zeid, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb himself, asked us to leave our positions in Timbuktu. To avoid a bloodbath whose main victims would be civilians, we left the city," said one FNLA leader, Ahmed Ould Cherif.
A security source confirmed that the "FNLA fighters left the city of Timbuktu on Friday night. It is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who asked for their departure."
The confusion in northern Mali - rife with arms and drugs smuggling and kidnappings, and now hit by drought and food shortages - has worried regional powers who have also demanded a return to democratic rule in Mali.
On Thursday, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) agreed in an extraordinary meeting to send a military force into Mali, although those troops will be based in the capital, Bamako, for now.
The 15-member Ecowas said the troops would help with Mali's transition to civilian rule. It was unclear, however, when the troops will arrive, and which nations will send them.
Under an Ecowas-mediated deal, the junta has handed power back to a civilian government and agreed to elections within a year.
Ironically, the soldiers had justified their power grab by accusing the government of incompetence in fighting the rebellion.
Northern Mali has since been held by a hotchpotch of rebels and outlaws, with some Tuareg fighters declaring the north an independent state.
"We came here to defend and protect our region," said FNLA member Ahmed Ould Mamoud, whose group claims about 500 fighters.
The group is headed by Mohamed Lamine Ould Sidatt, a regional elected official, and its military operations are directed by a lieutenant-colonel who defected from the Malian army, Housseine Khoulam.
Much of the north remains in the hands of two other armed groups - Islamists Ansar Dine and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Mali's main Tuareg rebel group.
The MNLA earlier declared independence in the north, a vast swathe of desert it calls Azawad it captured along with Ansar Dine in the disarray following the coup.
Ansar Dine subsequently took control of Timbuktu, saying it rejects independence for the north and is fighting for Islam.
Security sources say Ansar Dine has fallen under the influence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is holding several westerners hostage.
Ansar Dine set up an "Islamic police force" in Timbuktu to enforce sharia law in cases of theft.
"Ansar Dine said they would apply sharia law because there are too many thefts," regional official Issa Maiga said.
"The headquarters of the Islamic police carry the inscription 'Islamic police' in Arabic. A car is also driving through town with the inscription 'Islamic police' in Arabic," a person close to a Timbuktu imam said.
Amid the chaos, Malian former foreign minister Tieble Drame warned that "Ecowas and the international community must, if it becomes necessary, intervene militarily to prevent Mali becoming an international sanctuary for banditry and the headquarters of massive criminal groups".