TIMBUKTU (Reuters) - The Malian Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine said on Tuesday it would allow an aid convoy it had blocked outside the northern city of Timbuktu to deliver its food and medical supplies on Wednesday, after reaching a deal with local authorities.
Ansar Dine had stopped the convoy, the first aid sent to Timbuktu since the government lost control of northern Mali, late on Monday after objecting to the presence of women in a reception committee set up to receive the supplies.
Tens of thousands of people have fled northern Mali since the rebels swept across the region, taking advantage of a March 22 coup in the capital Bamako. Those who stayed face widespread lawlessness and worsening shortages of food and medicine just as one of the Sahel region's recurrent droughts seems to be biting.
"We don't appreciate that we, as the authority in Timbuktu, were not consulted in organizing the reception and distribution of this humanitarian convoy," said Sanda Ould Boumana, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, which wants to impose sharia, Islamic law.
He said the convoy, carrying tons of food and medical supplies, would be allowed to enter the city on Wednesday morning, after a new 9-person committee including five Ansar Dine members, had organized its reception.
He did not say if women would be allowed to attend.
A Reuters reporter said the convoy, which reached the city gates late on Monday after a three-day trip from Bamako, was guarded by heavily armed Ansar Dine gunmen in pick-up trucks. People in the convoy, including doctors, aid workers and journalists, were allowed into the city.
Ansar Dine, which has loose links with local al Qaeda factions, has already tried to impose sharia in parts of the rebel-controlled north, including regional centers Gao and Kidal. Its militants attacked and burned a sacred tomb in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, earlier this month, alleging such shrines were un-Islamic.
"This is a cry for help from a city entitled to protection, rescue and preservation, if indeed the words 'World Heritage Site' are not empty," a group of local artists and intellectuals said in a statement issued on Tuesday.
While residents of northern Mali cope with growing hardships, chaos reigns in the capital, scene of a counter-coup attempt two weeks ago and continuing political turmoil as an interim government tries to prepare for national elections.
Rebel-occupied northern Mali is home to some 1.5 million people, of whom as many as 400,000 have been displaced, about 190,000 of them having left the country, according to UNICEF.
Scores of young men from Timbuktu used shovels and pails on Tuesday to dig out sand-choked wells as the city's water supplies dried up. "We have no choice but to help our brothers and sisters in distress," said one of them, El Haj Mahamadou.
Residents said fuel supplies were also running short as rampant banditry on the main road from the south had cut truck shipments, leading to widespread power outages and shutting the city's water pumping station.
"We feel betrayed by the state, which is doing nothing for Timbuktu since it fell," said Bougoumi Aboubacar Tandina, a hotel manager. "The new authorities in Bamako think of nothing but themselves while we suffer."
In Gao on Tuesday, local youths took to the streets for the second straight day to protest against rebel control of the town, shouting "Down with Ansar Dine and MNLA". MNLA is the Tuareg rebel group vying with Ansar Dine for control of the north.
Residents of Gao said Ansar Dine had outlawed video games, western and Malian music, soccer and bars.
A refugee camp for about 750 residents of northern Mali - most of them children - has been set up near Mopti, about halfway between Bamako and Timbuktu.
"We can't complain about the conditions here, and we feel safer here than we did at home," said Boubacar Traore, a man in his fifties who fled Hombri in April. "But we are waiting for peace to return so that we can live like before," he said.
(Reporting by Cheikh Diouara and Adama Diarra; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Tim Pearce)