THE alliance of Islamist groups occupying northern Mali has fractured just as French and African troops prepare to mount a ground offensive to clear out al-Qaeda linked terrorists
A senior negotiator from the Ansar Dine rebels who seized the north of the country from the Bamako-based government yesterday declared he was now part of a faction which wanted talks and rejected any alliance with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), an Algerian-led wing of the terror group.
It remained unclear last night how many fighters had joined the new Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) faction – Azawad is the Tuareg for northern Mali.
But the announcement will encourage negotiators who have sought to prise apart the Islamist alliance, seen as a major threat by western and regional powers.
“There has to be a ceasefire so there can be talks,” Alghabass Ag Intallah, a Tuareg, said from the Ansar Dine stronghold of Kidal, north-east Mali. The MIA would focus on seeking autonomy for the northern homeland of the desert Tuaregs, he said.
French radio RFI reported that Mr Int Picalla said his men were willing to fight their former comrades in Ansar Dine.
“We are not terrorists. We are ready to negotiate,” he said.
For nearly two weeks, French aircraft have been bombarding Islamist rebel positions in the centre and north of Mali as a ground force of African troops assembles to launch a United Nations-backed military intervention. The strikes halted a rebel advance south. French and Malian ground troops have also retaken several towns and have been mopping up after the insurgents avoided a head-on fight, abandoning vehicles and slipping away into the bush.
Yesterday, around 160 troops from Burkina Faso arrived in the Malian town of Markala – the first West African troops to link with French and Malian forces.
News of the French and African advances have been overshadowed by allegations from residents and rights groups that Malian soldiers have executed Tuaregs and Arabs accused of collaborating with the rebels.
The reports of killings of lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs by Mali’s mostly black army has raised fears the internationally-backed intervention could trigger an ethnic bloodbath. “These people took up arms against us, our colleagues were killed … I no longer have any Tuareg friends,” one Malian soldier said.
Outside Diabaly, a town of mud-brick huts and mango trees surrounded by irrigation canals 220 miles north of capital, Bamako, Malian soldiers captured a group of suspected Islamists found hiding in a local house, said one Malian officer.
The captives were taken away in a lorry, witnesses said.
Diplomats gave the news of a rebel split a guarded welcome. “It is not surprising that there could still be significant rifts between what some call the military faction and the political faction,” said one US official. The Islamist alliance – involving fighters from Malian militant group Ansae Dine, Aqim’s local splinter, Mujwa, and Aqim itself – holds the major towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. Its fighters are estimated at roughly 3,000.
Fears that it could pose a threat to African neighbours and western powers increased last week when al-Qaeda-linked guerrillas seized a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria. At least 37 foreign hostages were killed.
France has ordered special forces to protect uranium sites run by state-owned Areva in Mali’s neighbour Niger, which supplies uranium for the French nuclear power industry.
Military experts say a fast, efficient deployment of the African ground force, expected to eventually exceed 5,000, is essential to sustain the momentum of the French operations in Mali.
The operation will be high on the agenda of an African Union summit in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa this weekend.