Three top leaders of al Qaeda’s North African wing are said to be in the Malian city of Timbuktu.
The trio of Algerians are thought to be taking advantage of growing chaos in Mali, where the historic northern town has fallen into rebel hands.
There is confusion over whether its is controlled by Tuareg fighters hoping to gain independence for their traditional homeland or Islamist insurgents.
They want Sharia law imposed throughout the country.
In the capital, Bamako, people are rushing to stock up on petrol and cash after Mali’s neighbours went ahead with trade and diplomatic sanctions. They are aimed at forcing the military junta who seized power in a coup last month to stand aside.
The African Union has also imposed sanctions on the coup leader and his allies as well as on the heads of armed factions fighting in the north.
Long one of West Africa’s most stable democracies, Mali is today in turmoil.