Mali rebels declare independence of Azawad nation
MALI’S Tuareg rebels declared independence of an Azawad nation on Friday, as the political crisis in the country showed no signs of abating.
Tuareg forces seized control of the country’s north in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup in the capital, Bamako.
“We, the people of the Azawad,” they said in a statement, “proclaim the irrevocable independence of the state of the Azawad starting from this day, Friday, April 6, 2012.”
Mali’s African neighbours have said they are planning military action to push the rebels back, as well as to restore constitutional rule elsewhere.
France, which has already said it is willing to offer logistical support for a military invasion, said yesterday that it does not recognize the new Tuareg state.
“A unilateral declaration of independence that is not recognized by African states means nothing for us,” said French defence minister Gerard Longuet. The European Union agreed.
“We will certainly not accept this declaration. It’s out of the question,” said Richard Zinc, the head of the European Union delegation in Bamako.
Disgruntled soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the capital last month and sent the democratically elected leader into hiding. The confusion in the capital created an opening for the rebels in the north, who have been attempting to claim independence for more than half a century.
The traditionally nomadic Tuareg people have been fighting for independence for the northern half of Mali since at least 1958, when Tuareg elders wrote a letter addressed to the French president asking their colonial rulers to carve out a separate homeland called Azawad. Instead the north, where the Tuareg people live, was made part of the same country as the south.
The Tuaregs accuse the southerners of marginalising the north, concentrating development, including lucrative aid projects, in the south. They fought numerous rebellions attempting to wrestle the north free, but it wasn’t until the coup in Bamako that the fighters were able to make significant gains. In a three-day period last week they seized the three largest cities in the north as soldiers dumped their uniforms and retreated.
Their independence declaration cited 50 years of misrule by the country’s southern-based administration and was issued by the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA. Their army is led by a Tuareg who fought for Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.
The group is secular and its stated aim is creating Azawad. However, they were helped by an Islamist faction, Ansar Dine, which abides by the extreme Salafi reading of the Koran. They are now attempting to apply Sharia law to Mali’s moderate north, where women have been told to wear veils and must not be seen in public with males who are not relatives.
In all three of the major cities in the north, residents say they do not know which of the two factions has the upper hand. In the city of Gao, where the NMLA declaration of independence was written, a resident said that it appeared that the Islamist faction was in control, not the NMLA.
Foreign governments are concerned that the Islamist group is providing cover for al-Qaida’s North African branch, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The terrorist organisation has kidnapped scores of Western tourists and aid workers and is known to have at least three bases in northern Mali.
Ousmane Halle, the mayor of Timbuktu, said that the Ansar Dine faction has taken over the military base in the center of the ancient city.
He said: “They do not speak any African language as far as I can tell. In fact, I don’t believe any of them are African.”
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