Mali Tuareg rebels' call on independence rejected

Ansar Dine group in Timbuktu, 3 April The Islamist Ansar Dine group has also rejected the MNLA move

The African Union, the EU and the US have all rejected a call by Tuareg rebels in north Mali for their newly named region of Azawad to be recognised as independent.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seized the area last week.

The MNLA is one of two rebel groups to have gained ground in the area after Mali's government was ousted in a coup.

The other, the Islamist Ansar Dine, says it wants no part in the MNLA move.

'No meaning'

The head of the African Union, Jean Ping, said the MNLA announcement had no value whatsoever.

The European Union demanded negotiations to solve the crisis, with Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, telling Agence France-Presse: "The EU has made clear throughout the crisis that it respects the territorial integrity of Mali."

Analysis

West African leaders are fearful of a potential domino effect throughout the region if the MNLA separatist bid were accepted. But more importantly, the rebels' hunger for secession remains to be shared by the inhabitants of the vast desert north.

More than half the northern population has fled south or across borders into neighbouring countries. With no international recognition, an Azawad state would not be able to address the main reason behind the secession: A desire for development after decades of neglect, the rebels say, by successive Malian administrations

An independent secular north would face other problems as Islamist rebel factions oppose a secession but have already started to impose aspect of sharia law in all major centres.

US state department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told AFP: "We reject the MNLA's statement of independence and reiterate our call for the territorial integrity of Mali."

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also said that Paris insisted on Mali's territorial integrity and rejected the MNLA appeal.

Defence Minister Gerard Longuet added: "A unilateral declaration of independence that was not recognised by African states would have no meaning."

The regional Ecowas group said it would "take all necessary measures, including the use of force, to ensure the territorial integrity of the country".

Britain announced it was closing its embassy in the capital, Bamako, and withdrawing its staff.

AFP also quoted Ansar Dine's military chief Omar Hamaha as saying the group wanted no part of the MNLA announcement.

"Our war is a holy war. It's a legal war in the name of Islam. We are against rebellions. We are against independence. We are against revolutions not in the name of Islam," Mr Hamaha said.

Ministers from three of Mali's neighbours, Algeria, Mauritania and Niger, are reported to be meeting in Nouakchott, Mauritania, on Sunday to discuss the crisis.

Who are the Tuareg?

map showing Tuareg areas
  • Sometimes called the Blue People because the indigo used in some traditional robes and turbans dye their skins dark blue
  • Historically nomadic Berber people who live in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Libya, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, which they call Azawad
  • When camels were introduced into the Sahara 2,000 years ago, the Tuareg became the main operators of the trans-Saharan caravan trade in commodities such as salt and gold
  • Lost out when trade switched to the Atlantic Ocean
  • The Tuareg in Mali say they face discrimination because they are light-skinned and have been neglected by the government in far-off Bamako
  • They prefer to call themselves themselves the Kel Tamasheq or speakers of Tamasheq - their language which has its own alphabet

A 2,000-strong force has been put on standby by Ecowas.

It is waiting for a response from regional heads of state before deploying the force.

The crisis was sparked when Mali's army seized power on 22 March, accusing the elected government of not doing enough to halt the two rebel groups.

Rights group Amnesty International has warned that Mali is on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster in the wake of the rebellion.

The MNLA had declared its "unilateral" ceasefire on Thursday after the UN Security Council called for an end to the fighting in Mali.

A statement posted on the rebel website on Friday proclaimed independence, adding it would respect existing borders with neighbouring states and adhere to the UN Charter.

"We completely accept the role and responsibility that behoves us to secure this territory.

"We have ended a very important fight, that of liberation... now the biggest task commences," rebel spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher is quoted as saying by AFP.

The Tuareg people inhabit the Sahara Desert in northern Mali, as well as several neighbouring countries and have fought several rebellions over the years.

They complain that they have been ignored by the authorities in Bamako.

Mali has been in disarray ever since the coup, with people continuing to flee the northern areas.

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