In life, he delighted in fomenting insurgencies in the African nations to the south. And in death, former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is doing it all over again.
Hundreds of Tuareg rebels, heavily armed courtesy of Qaddafi’s extensive arsenal, have stormed towns in Mali’s northern desert in recent weeks, in one of the most significant regional shock waves to emanate directly from Qaddafi’s fall.
After fighting for Qaddafi as he struggled to stay in power, the Tuaregs helped themselves to a considerable quantity of sophisticated weaponry before returning to Mali. When they got here, they reinvigorated a longstanding rebellion and blossomed into a major challenge for the impoverished desert nation, an important US ally against the regional al-Qaeda franchise.
The Tuaregs hoisted their rebel flag in the sandy northern towns, shelled military installations, announced the “liberation” of the area and shouted “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” according to local officials. Their sudden strength has deeply surprised a Malian army accustomed to fighting wispy turbaned fighters wielding only Kalashnikov rifles.
Months after the death of Qaddafi, his weapons have armed a rebel movement in Africa. In life he backed African insurgencies in Chad, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
And for this sparsely populated land, the recent fighting seems a step beyond the army’s desert skirmishes with the Tuaregs in the 1960s, the early 1990s and again in 2006. This time, the rebels are not being quickly stamped out or fleeing to the rocky mountains of this vast, inhospitable region. To the contrary, officials now say they are facing perhaps the most serious threat ever from the Tuaregs.
Emboldened by their new weaponry, they have formed a made-to-order liberation movement, the MNLA, or Mouvement National Pour la Liberation 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 of an arsenal to create a kind of standoff with the Malian army.
“Heavy weapons,” Malian Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said, referring to the rebels’ new arms. “Anti-tank weapons. Anti-aircraft weapons.”
Malian military officials agree.
“Robust, powerful machine guns,” Lieutenant Colonel Diarran Kone of the Malian defense ministry said.
“Mortars,” he added, describing the weaponry as “significant enough to allow them to achieve their objectives.”
About a half-dozen towns in the north have been attacked, including Niafounke. Both government and rebel forces have suffered casualties and about 10,000 civilians have fled the fighting, according to the Red Cross.
The situation appears to have worsened for the Mali government over the past few days. The rebels have retaken the town of Menaka, a military spokesman, Idrissa Traore, said on Friday, adding that a number of soldiers and civilians — he refused to say how many — had been killed by the 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 tires. The defense minister has been replaced, and reprisals have been reported against Tuaregs living in the south.