Mali’s Tuareg rebels, who have seized control of the country’s distant north in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup in the capital, declared independence for the Azawad nation yesterday.
“We, the people of the Azawad,” they said in a statement published on the rebel Web site, “proclaim the irrevocable independence of the state of the Azawad starting from this day, Friday, April 6, 2012.”
The military chiefs of 13 of Mali’s neighbors met on Thursday in Ivory Coast to start hashing out plans for a military intervention to restore constitutional rule in the capital and push back the rebels in the north. France, which earlier said it was willing to offer logistical support for the operation, announced yesterday that it did not recognize the new state.
“A unilateral declaration of independence that is not recognized by African states means nothing for us,” French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said.
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 for the Tuareg people. Instead, the north, where the lighter-skinned Tuareg people live, was made part of the same country as the south, where the dark-skinned ethnic groups controlled the capital and the nation’s finances.
The Tuaregs fought numerous rebellions, but it was not until a March 21 coup in Bamako toppled the nation’s elected government 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 (NMLA), whose army is led by a Tuareg senior commander who fought in the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s military.
The group is secular and its stated aim is creating a homeland for the Tuareg people. 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 Shariah law to Mali’s moderate north, including in the fabled tourist destination of Timbuktu.
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, from where the NMLA declaration of independence was written, a resident said that it appeared that the Islamist faction was in control.
“I heard the declaration, but I’m telling you the situation on the ground. We barely see the NMLA. The people we see are the Salafis,” said the young man, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.
On Thursday, residents confirmed that the Ansar Dine faction stormed the Algerian consulate and took the consul and six other employees hostage. Their fate is unknown.