Colonel Gaddafi armed Tuaregs pound Mali

A Libyan army soldier in Tripoli points to his rifle. Weapons from Gaddafi's forces have come into the possession of Tuareg rebels, who have stormed towns in Mali's northern desert in recent weeks. Photograph: Getty Images
A Libyan army soldier in Tripoli points to his rifle. Weapons from Gaddafi's forces have come into the possession of Tuareg rebels, who have stormed towns in Mali's northern desert in recent weeks. Photograph: Getty Images
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IN LIFE, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi delighted in fomenting insurgency in North African nations to the south of Libya. In death, his legacy continues to fuel unrest.

Hundreds of Tuareg rebels, armed by Gaddafi, have stormed towns in Mali’s northern desert in recent weeks, in one of the most significant aftershocks of Gaddafi’s fall.

As he struggled to retain power, the Tuaregs seized sophisticated weaponry before heading back to Mali, where they rekindled a long-standing rebellion which has grown into a major challenge for the impoverished desert nation, allied to America in the fight against the regional al-Qaeda franchise.

The Tuaregs hoisted their rebel flag in northern towns, shelled military installations, announced the “liberation” of the area and shouted “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great”, local officials said. Their sudden strength has shocked a Malian army accustomed to fighting turbaned fighters armed only with Kalashnikovs.

When he was alive, Gaddafi armed rebels in Chad, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Now in Mali, where the Tuaregs, a nomadic people who range the Sahara, have risen against the government in the 1960s, 1990s, and, most recently in 2006, the unrest is once again being fuelled by his arms. Government officials say troops are now facing a foe emboldened by their new weaponry, fighting under the label MNLA, or Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad – Azawad being the name they give to northern Mali.

“Our goal is to liberate our lands from Malian occupation,” said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, one of the rebel spokesmen in exile in France. The rebels — perhaps as many as 1,000, commanded by a former colonel in Libya’s army — brought with them enough weapons to create a stand-off with the Malian Army.

“Heavy weapons,” said Mali’s foreign minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, of the new arms. “Anti-tank weapons. Anti-aircraft weapons.”

Malian military officials agree. “Robust, powerful machine guns,” said Lieutenant Colonel Diarran Kone of the defence ministry. “Mortars,” he added, describing the weaponry as “significant enough to allow them to achieve their objectives”.

Both government and rebel forces have suffered casualties, and nearly 10,000 civilians have fled the fighting, according to the Red Cross.

The situation appears to have worsened in the past few days. The rebels have retaken the town of Ménaka and a number of soldiers and civilians were killed by rebels in the town of Aguelhok. In Bamako, the capital, families of soldiers have demonstrated against what they say is the government’s poor handling of the rebel offensive, blocking roads and burning tyres. The defence minister has been replaced, and reprisals have been reported against Tuaregs living in the south.

Officials in Bamako make no secret of their shock at what one western diplomat called the “robustness” of the rebel incursion. “All of a sudden we found ourselves face to face with 1,000 men, heavily armed,” said Maïga, the foreign minister. “The stability of the entire region could be under threat.”

Many Malians viewed Gaddafi as a benefactor, who helped to build government offices here but are angered by the rebellion his arms have re–ignited. Analysts agree, Gaddafi’s arms are chiefly to blame for the renewed insurgency.

“This is a fairly significant military force,” said Pierre Boilley, a Tuareg expert at the University of Paris. “The game has changed. They can directly attack the Malian Army. I think the army will have trouble.”

The new Tuareg campaign “shows a pretty serious military and logistical capability,” said Yvan Guichaoua, a Sahara expert at the University of East Anglia. In some ways, the aggressive new Tuareg campaign represents the kind of support the rebels had long sought from Gaddafi, who for years alternately aided and betrayed the desert warriors, said Boilley. After the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, young Tuaregs migrated north to Gaddafi’s military training camps, to later fight for him in places like Chad, while at the same time destabilising the governments in Niger and Mali.

Gaddafi backed independence movements all over Africa, including a coup bid in Sudan in 1976, and he supported pariah governments the West shied from, like the military junta in Gambia in 1994. His most significant African venture was in Chad during the 1980s, when he backed a rebel group against the government, with an eye toward capturing a mineral-rich border area. His surrogates were defeated by Chad’s government in 1987, but Libyan troops did not leave the disputed border strip until 1994.

And yet, Boilley writes, the Tuareg distrusted Gaddafi, whose rhetoric was rarely matched by material support.

“When they came into Ménaka, they were yelling, ‘Allahu Akbar’. What does that mean? We don’t do that sort of thing when we fight,” said Bajan Ag Hamatou, an elected official from Ménaka. His brother, Aroudeïny Ag Hamatou, the mayor of a small town outside Ménaka, said, “A lot of buildings were destroyed.”

Bajan Ag Hamatou angrily blamed the West for having created a mess in his backyard.

“The westerners didn’t want Gaddafi, and they got rid of him, and they created problems for all of us,” he said. “When you chased Gaddafi out in that barbaric fashion, you created ten more Gaddafis. The whole Saharo-Sahelian region has become unliveable.”