GULFNEWS.com (Dubai), EL WATAN (Algeria), FASO.net (Burkina Faso), BBC (UK), JEUNE AFRIQUE (France)
The situation in the north of Mali is provoking increasing anxiety in its neighbors. Fundamentalist Islamic rebels close to Al Qaeda have taken over the region, while the Mali government now controls only one-third of the country.
The United Nations Security Council, the African Union, the EU, and ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States, which includes 15 West African countries) are currently reviewing a possible military intervention against the most extreme of the rebel groups, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), which is even more violent that AQIM.
It is feared that the fundamentalist Islamic rebels could establish a base for terrorism and drug smuggling in the remote region that would endanger all nearby nations and provide support for long-distance terrorist attacks around Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
According to Gulfnews, the largest Islamist group Ansar Dine, which is also fundamentalist, may be persuaded by Algeria to abandon AQIM. Algeria has warm relations with Ansar Dine’s leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly. According to El Watan, an Ansar Dine delegation arrived in Algiers on Nov. 3 to negotiate.
While France considers Ansar Dine a terrorist group, El Watan says, the Algerian government has a more “nuanced” view and believes that most members of Ansar Dine are ordinary Tuaregs with grievances, who would prefer a political solution.
A coalition of rebel groups declared the independence of Azawad, a Tuareg Muslim state, on April 6, although no other countries recognize it. The Islamist groups dominated the coalition and drove out the other rebels. They have instituted Sharia law, and have destroyed ancient monuments in Gao and in Timbuktu, a UNESCO world heritage site, says the BBC. Islamist fundamentalists consider non-Islamic monuments and even Islamic shrines to be idolatrous.
But the Algerian hope is that Ansar Dine will agree to a political solution. “Our goal is to put the Tuaregs back into the political game, to isolate and weaken the terrorists,” a highly placed source in Algeria told El Watan. The source also implied that Algeria had not ruled out using its soldiers.
The Sahel region where the rebels control most of Mali has been a focus of warfare for at least 60 years. The roots of the war lie in conflict between the once completely nomadic, ethnically Berber Tuaregs of the desert, and the black and Arab ethnic groups around them. According to Le Faso, millions of Tuaregs living on the borders of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Algeria and Libya believe they have been treated unfairly. Periodically, they have rebelled and migrated elsewhere, living in large refugee camps in Algeria and Libya, among others.
Several armed rebellions by Tuaregs occurred and were put down between the end of French colonial rule in the early 1990s and today. Le Faso reports that under the regime of Libyan dictator Gadhafi, many young Tuareg men were encouraged to move to Libya and take up arms to fight for Islamic causes, including in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Syria. They returned to the Sahel in the 1980s and founded their own commandos.
According to GulfNews, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Oct. 12 to help the Mali army to recover northern Mali, and gave the stakeholders, including Mali’s neighbors, 25 days to come up with a plan.
Since last week, reports El Watan, “international military experts” have been meeting in Mali’s capital Bamako to develop a strategy for the international attack. Jeune Afrique says that the authorities are considering an intervention on the model of that in Somalia in 2010 by the European Union. But, GulfNews points out, “the ‘Somali model’ is not reassuring to many security experts.”
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Map of Mali courtesy of Peter Fitzgerald