Mali: clashes escalate with new Tuareg rebels —led by pro-Qaddafi fighters?

Mali’s army says 47 were killed in ongoing clashes this week with a new Tuareg rebel group, whose members include former pro-Qaddafi fighters. “Our armed forces have bravely beaten back the attacks of the former Libyan fighters and the MNLA rebels,” the armed forces said in a statement Jan. 19, using the acronym of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. But MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatoumane denied the government’s account, telling the Reuters that his fighters had killed around 30 to 40 soldiers. Both rebel and government forces claim to be in control of Aguelhoc. The MNLA spokesman said fighting was suspended in Tessalit to allow for the withdrawal of Algerian soldiers who had been helping Mali. Sources told Al Jazeera that the army is conducting house raids and arrests in the northern towns of Gao and Kidal, targetting Tuareg tribal sheikhs, as well as Tuareg military and political figures.

The MNLA, with no known leader, was founded late last year in a fusion of rebel groups, including the Northern Mali Tuareg Movement (MTNM), whose leader died in a road accident last year. “This new organization aims to free the people of Azawad from the illegal occupation of its territory by Mali,” the MNLA said in its first press statement in October. The group was apparently founded by Tuareg fighters who had been employed by Qaddafi and fled Libya as the National Transitional Council (NTC) forces took over.

It appears to have won some support in the Tuareg diaspora abroad. Akli Sh’kka, spokesman for the Taureg Youth Movement, told Al Jazeera from Leeds, England, that the rebels were fighting for basic rights. “This fight goes back to 1963. The movement’s leaders have tried to open dialogue with the Mali authorities but they are always met with refusal and stubbornness,” said Sh’kka. “We are denied the right to vote. Now, the Taureg people are trying to stand up for their rights.” (AlJazeera, Jan. 20)

Meanwhile, the UN-backed Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported that inspectors visiting Libya uncovered previously unknown stocks of chemical munitions, after being alerted by NTC authorities. The stocks of sulphur mustard agent, which can cause severe blistering, were being stored at a Ruwagha depot, believed to be part of the former Rabta chemical weapons production facility. (BBC News, Jan. 20)

In a sign of growing discontent in post-Qaddafi Libya, the deputy head of the ruling NTC was confronted by student protesters in Benghazi, who surrounded and shoved him before he was dragged away to safety. Students chanted “Go away, Go away!” as Ghoga entered the campus. Benghazi has witnessed growing protests in recent weeks demanding transparency from NTC authorities. and the sacking of officials who served under Qaddafi. (Reuters, Jan. 20)

See our last posts on Libya, Mali and the Tuareg struggle.