Mali: do Tuareg rebels or jihadis control the north?

While Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) claim to control the north of Mali—the vast stretch of the country beyond the Niger River—there is growing evidence that Islamist organizations have actually taken power in much of this territory. With the Islamist faction Ansar Dine still reported to be patrolling the streets of Timbuktu, the northern region's main city, a second such faction was reported April 8 to have stormed the Algerian consulate in Gao, some 200 miles across the desert to the west, abducting the consul and six members of his team. The Jamat Tawhid wal Jihad fi Garbi Afriqqiya—or Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) —claimed responsibility for the abduction in a statement sent to AFP, saying it "will be making its demands known."

MUJAO in December also claimed responsibility for the abduction of three European aid workers at the Tindouf refugee camps in western Algeria two months earlier. Last month, the group also claimed responsibility for an attack on police in Tamanrasset, southern Algeria, in which 23 were wounded. MUJAO is said to have broken off from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in order to spread jihad to West Africa rather than confine themselves to the Maghreb and Sahel regions.

In Bamako, Mali's capital, officials said that militants from Nigeria's jihadist network Boko Haram are active in Gao. "There are a good 100 Boko Haram fighters in Gao," Abu Sidibe, a regional deputy, told AFP. "They're not hiding. Some are even able to speak in the local tongue, explaining that they are Boko Haram." (The report did not make clear which of several "local tongues" spoken in the region was used.) (IBT, April 10; Radio Netherlands, Magharebia, April 8; North Africa United, Dec. 13)

The UN news agency IRIN reports that residents in Gao are hiding in their homes as militiamen control the streets, looting hospitals, health clinics, government buildings, and NGO and UN offices and warehouses. All aid operations in the drought-stricken region have been suspended, and there have been reports of rapes by militiamen in the remote desert city. (The report did not make clear which faction the militiamen are from.)

France24 is boasting photos purporting to show that MNLA forces in the northern town of Gossi (Timbuktu region) are using child soldiers. The report quotes MNLA spokesman Mossa ag-Assarid denying the claim and asserting, "no one under the age of 18 has entered the MNLA's armed forces. There are enough adult fighters to accomplish their mission." He said the photos "were staged to tarnish the movement's image." Neither France24 nor ag-Assarid raised the possibility that the photos actually showed Islamist militants rather than Tuareg fighters; presumably, neither the MNLA nor those seeking to discredit it have an interest in acknowledging that Islamists may have usurped control on Gossi.

Reuters meanwhile reports that an Arab militia calling itself the Azawad National Liberation Front (FLNA) has emerged in Timbuktu. One Mohamed Lamine Sidad, calling himself the FLNA's secretary general, told Reuters that the group seeks neither independence nor sharia. "We have our own interests to defend—a return to peace and economic activity," Sidad said by telephone, highlighting the economic clout the Arab trading community has traditionally enjoyed in Timbuktu.

The junta that ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure in Bamako last month is now calling itself the "National Committee for the Re-establishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State" (CNRDRE), and has been recognized at least provisionally by the West African states on a pledge to restore constitutional rule. Toure officially resigned April 8, in a sign of the coup's growing acceptance as an international military intervention is prepared to retake the north. The junta leader, Cpt. Amadou Sanogo, warned in an interview with Le Monde on April 4 that if the situation is allowed to fester, "both Africa and the whole world will one day be its victims." (NPR, April 10; VOA, April 8)

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