Malian rebel faction splits amid rights abuse claims

DIVIDE, CONQUER::Islamist group Ansar Dine says it has formed a new organization and is prepared to agree to a ceasefire to start negotiating for northern autonomy

Reuters and AP, DAKAR, SENEGAL and SAN, Mali

Fri, Jan 25, 2013 - Page 1

A faction of one of the armed Islamist groups occupying the north of Mali has split off from its al-Qaeda allies and says it is willing to hold talks with the Malian government, the leader of the new group said yesterday.

Alghabass Ag Intallah, a senior member of the Tuareg-led Ansar Dine group that helped seize northern Mali last year from government forces, said he had created a new organization: the Islamic Movement of Azawad, and was ready to seek a solution to Mali’s conflict.

A French-led military operation is underway in Mali to drive back the Islamist fighters who launched a surprise push southward toward the capital, Bamako, two weeks ago. An African ground force is also being deployed to fight the rebels.

“We want to wage our war and not that of AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb],” Ag Intallah said by telephone, referring to the militant group that has been at the heart of the takeover of the vast desert north by Malian and foreign Islamist fighters.

“There has to be a ceasefire so there can be talks,” he said, speaking from the town of Kidal, a Tuareg stronghold in northeast Mali seized by Ansar Dine last year. “The aim is to speak about the situation in the north.”

He said the new group, which would be based in Kidal, had been in touch with mediators in Burkina Faso and Algerian authorities. He said rebel demands would be for a broad autonomy rather than independence for the north.

Ansar Dine had formed a loose alliance with AQIM and a third group, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, to impose Shariah Islamic law in the desert and mountain area the size of Texas.

International negotiators have long sought to prize apart the Islamist alliance by offering talks to Ansar Dine and Tuareg separatists, on the condition that they broke with AQIM, but preliminary negotiations broke down last month after Ansar Dine called off a ceasefire.

Ag Intallah said some members of the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad movement, which has fought AQIM, had also joined his group.

Word of the new dissension within rebel ranks came as the government was confronting its own troubles: The most vocal allegations yet that its depleted army — which was badly splintered and weakened during the coup d’etat — had been responsible for human rights abuses along the battle zones separating the rebels in the north.

“For several days information has come to use pointing to abuses committed on the ground that point to abuses that verge on human rights violations,” the Malian Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

On Wednesday, a witness told reporters that Malian soldiers shot people accused of ties to the Islamists at a bus stop in Konna, along the dividing line, and threw their bodies into wells.

The same day, French human rights group FIDH accused Malian forces of dozens of “summary executions’” in the area.