Bamako - Three top leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are in the Malian city Timbuktu which was seized on Monday by Islamists seeking to impose shari'ah law, religious and security sources said.
The three Algerians are Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam.
They have appeared on the flanks of renowned Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly who leads the Islamist Ansar Dine movement, which has seized Timbuktu.
A security source said the al-Qaeda leaders "took part in a meeting with Iyad Ag Ghaly and the town imams".
A source close to the imams who took part in the meeting confirmed this on condition of anonymity.
"Yes all three are there. Abou Zeid said he is happy to be on the Muslim soil of Mali," he said.
The security source said they have made the Timbuktu military camp, seized from the army by Islamists and Tuareg rebels on Sunday, their base.
Witnesses say Ag Ghaly is in complete control of the fabled city with the support of AQIM, but he needs to convince the town's religious leaders to accept his authority. He wants to impose shari'ah law.
The leader of a private business in Timbuktu said two youths arrested for stealing "will suffer the tough law of shari'ah tonight".
Ansar Dine had seized Timbuktu fighting alongside Tuareg rebels who hope to gain independence for their traditional homeland, but Ag Ghaly chased out his erstwhile allies on Monday.
The ancient city was founded by Tuareg nomads in the 11th century. A rich trading point for gold and salt at the crossroads between north and west Africa, the city became a melting pot of Arab, Berber and black African cultures.