First Published: 2013-02-08

 

Tuareg rebels aim to re-assert relevance in Mali

 

MNLA are seeking to reassert themselves on political scene after unleashing Mali's descent into chaos.

 

Middle East Online

By Stephane Barbier - DAKAR

The Tuareg rebels who unleashed Mali's descent into chaos are seeking to reassert themselves on the political scene now that French-led troops have routed the Islamists who hijacked their rebellion.

The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) precipitated Mali's unravelling on January 17, 2012, when its members -- many armed with weapons recently brought back from Libya, where they fought for slain dictator Moamer Gathafi -- launched a rebellion in the north.

It was the latest in a long line of uprisings among the Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic North African people who have fought Mali's central government on and off since the country gained independence from France in 1960.

After teaming up with armed Islamist extremists in the region and humiliating the Malian army -- so badly that a group of mid-level officers staged a coup d'etat on March 22, exacerbating the chaos -- the MNLA declared independence for the new state of Azawad, the Tuareg name for their homeland.

But their alliance with the Islamists was short-lived.

More interested in sharia than independence, the Al-Qaeda-linked groups overpowered the MNLA and planted their own black flags across the north, ruling their territory with brutal repression until France sent in fighter jets, attack helicopters and 4,000 troops to drive them out.

Amid the ongoing conflict, the MNLA has sought to re-assert its relevance, claiming to have "chased the terrorists from several towns in Azawad" and passed along intelligence to French forces "top terrorist officials" it said it had arrested.

The group also said it had welcomed French troops in "full brotherhood" into the northeastern town of Kidal, the last Islamist bastion to fall.

The MNLA called on France not to let Mali's own troops secure Kidal, a request Paris appeared to grant, giving the job to 1,800 Chadian soldiers.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France had "functional relations" with the MNLA but that fighting terrorists alongside them was "not our objective".

The MNLA runs a vigorous public relations campaign from France and Burkina Faso.

Observers say it gets a boost -- particularly in France -- from the mythic image of the Tuareg, or Kel Tamasheq, a fiercely independent people who have lived in the region for 2,000 years and are known as the "masters of the desert".

Some say the MNLA has hijacked that mystique.

"Why do the media get so carried away when they talk about the Tuareg community?" asked Foreign Minister Mohammed Bazou of Niger, which also has a large Tuareg population.

"The MNLA doesn't represent the Tuareg. They've never been elected by anyone. The Tuareg community in Mali is beyond these people's grasp."

Historian Gregory Mann, a West Africa specialist at Columbia University, warned France it would be risky to ally with the MNLA, as Paris, eager to map an exit strategy, looks for partners to share the peacekeeping burden in Mali.

"This idea of allying to some extent with the MNLA... might be somewhat short-sighted in so far as it's going to be extremely difficult for (Mali's) central government to negotiate with the MNLA," he said.

"There are legitimate concerns on both sides about recent war crimes and atrocities, and also about a long history of aggression."

But Mali, a country of 14 million people whose bow-tie-shaped map circumscribes a vast sprawl of territory and peoples, will have to address the grievances of its estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Tuareg to escape the current crisis.

Interim president Dioncounda Traore has offered the MNLA a place at the negotiating table in return for renouncing its demand for an independent state.

The MNLA may also be able to help negotiate the release of seven French hostages kidnapped in Mali and Niger by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2011 and 2012 who the Islamists are believed to be holding in the Kidal region, said Alain Antil of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

"They are going to give advice, information, hoping to be at the negotiating table in the political process," he said.

"The MNLA obviously have a card to play."

 

Iraqi forces enter IS-held Mosul airport

Somalia names new prime minister

Syrian rebels announce capture of flashpoint town from IS

Top Yemen commander killed in missile strike

Marrakesh clinches top ranking of African urban life

Swedish citizen jailed for IS Facebook post

Netanyahu backs pardon for Israel soldier who shot Palestinian

UN envoy meets Syrian rivals, hopes of breakthrough slim

Yemeni government forces pin back rebels on coast

Israeli Supreme Court appoints deeply right-wing judges

Hundreds of Australians protest Netanyahu

Yemen rebel fire kills policeman on Saudi border

Fired Turkish academics protest ‘unjust’ dismissals

UN condemns Israel's new West Bank demolition plans

UN envoy says Russia asked Syria to halt bombing during talks

Bahrain arrests 20, approves military trials for civilians

Israel blocks EU lawmakers from Gaza entry

Syrian migrant on trial in Austria over 20 murders

UN says rapes, killings still blight Darfur

Yemen president says Saudi saving $10 bn for reconstruction

New Somali president says ability to deal with nation's problems 'limited'

Israel lifts ban on basketball team playing in Turkey

Arab League condemns Israeli soldier’s lenient sentence

Turkey lifts ban on Islamic headscarves in army

Israeli ministry orders removal of Haifa ammonia tank

Iraqi forces ready for assault on Mosul airport

Turkey says fewer than 100 IS jihadists left in Al-Bab

Former Iraqi soldier in German court for war crimes

Australia PM welcomes Netanyahu, slams 'one-sided' UN

Syrian opposition, government due in Geneva before talks

Israeli parliament to retain controversial dress code

Bahrain police clash with demonstrators over death of young Shiite

Mogadishu under security lockdown for president's inauguration

US-backed fighters seize more than dozen villages in Syria’s east

UN says seven million Yemenis on brink of starvation

Egypt, Jordan say no concessions on Palestinian state

Mosul ravaged by malnutrition, drug shortages

Israel sentences soldier to 18 months for killing Palestinian

Civilians trickle towards Iraq forces after village liberation

Turkey sentences Kurdish party co-leader to 5 months

Israel boosts missile defences against Hezbollah

France's Le Pen refuses to wear headscarf in Lebanon

Bouteflika health scare raises questions in Algeria

Palestinian journalist released after 10 months in Israel jail

UN says Syria talks focus on 'political transition'