London, United Kingdom - March 17 marked two months since the first shots were fired in Mali's latest Tuareg rebellion. Since then, Mali's army has been humiliated as the country now faces a real possibility of territorial division.
The Tuareg number an estimated two to three million. Nomadic pastoralists by tradition, they occupy a vast swathe of the Sahara and Sahel, from Libya, through northern Niger, southern Algeria and northern Mali to Burkina Faso. The largest number, estimated at approaching one million, live in Mali. The post-colonial history of Tuareg in both Mali and Niger has been characterised by a series of rebellions, the underlying causes of which have been the Tuaregs' marginalisation and the failure of their governments to adhere to peace agreements. Mali has experienced major Tuareg rebellions in 1962-64, 1990-95 and 2007-2009.
The catalyst for the present rebellion was the return of an estimated two to three thousand experienced well-armed Tuareg fighters who had served in Gaddafi's battalions. Their anger at events in Libya was compounded by the lackadaisical attitude and the complete failure of Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure and his government to address the problems created by their return.
Estimates of the number of returning Tuareg fighters range between 800 and 4,000. On their return to Mali, many stopped short of Kidal in the mountainous region around Ti-n-Asselak in the Abeibara district where they linked up with the fighters of former rebel leader Ibrahim ag Bahanga's (who died in August 2011) Mouvement Touareg du Nord Mali (MTNM). On October 16, these and various other groups merged to form the Mouvement National de Liberation de l'Azawad (MNLA).
The MNLA's first press statement said that it aimed "to free the people of Azawad from the illegal occupation of its territory by Mali". Azawad is the Tuareg name for the region north of Timbuktu that today covers the regions of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. The word is also used, by extension, to include the traditional Tuareg domains of northern Niger and southern Algeria. Within a few weeks, the MNLA was reinforced by Tuareg deserting the Mali army and young recruits from within the region. Estimates put the former as high as 1,500 and the latter at 500.
After two months of fighting, the Malian army has lost control of most of Azawad, while the number of troops that have either been killed, taken captive or deserted is now thought to be at least 1,000. In a humiliating incident, the army base at Aguelhok was overrun on January 24 when the troops defending it ran out of ammunition.
However, from a strategic point of view, the most significant fighting was at Tessalit. Close to the border with Algeria and with an army base and airport, Tessalit is a strategic town. By March 4, three Malian army units abandoned their attempts to relieve the MNLA siege of the base. A week later, the troops retreated to Algeria, leaving the base and the airport in MNLA control. The number of soldiers killed, taken captive or deserted, along with equipment destroyed or captured in these twin setbacks is thought to be considerable.
The two outstanding questions are: (1) Where do the MNLA and Mali go from here; and (2) Is the MNLA guilty of the "war crime" of which it is being accused by the Mali government?
It is conceivable that further attacks on the highly vulnerable, nomadic civilian population, may bring the rebels to submission, as has been the case in previous Tuareg rebellions. It is also conceivable that the Malian government's undercover militias, ethnic hatred campaigns, military in civilian clothing acting in mobs shouting "death to the Tuaregs" and internet propaganda might succeed in opening cleavages within the complex political, ethnic and social mix that comprises the totality of the Azawad population.
However, the signs are that the rebellion is capable of sustaining itself for much longer, especially if the MNLA receives support from Niger's well-armed and battle-experienced Tuareg, as unverified reports suggest. With Tessalit in MNLA hands, it may be difficult for the army to regain any momentum. The future of Bamako's control over the vast expanse of Azawad now depends almost entirely on whether the dispirited and ill-led Malian army can repulse the MNLA assault - if and when it comes - on the regional capital of Kidal.
If Kidal falls, then much of the current media talk about a negotiated ceasefire will be largely academic. The reality of such a situation would be that Mali would have become a divided territory, a situation that would not only seriously concern Mali's neighbours, but also leave the MNLA in a very strong bargaining position. The MNLA says it won't negotiate unless it is about the Republic of Azawad. However, even with the model of southern Sudan in its sights, the MNLA knows from past experience that demands for independence will get watered down. It is therefore likely to establish the facts on the ground, in the form of the capture of Kidal and possibly even Gao, before contemplating any such negotiations.
If the MNLA does establish such a strong negotiating position, there is no certainty that the current Mali government will still be around to negotiate with. Since early March, there have been rumours of fissions within the Mali government and even talk of a Gao-based coup d'etat. Moreover, while it is all very well for Bamako to debate whether military force or negotiation is the solution, the reality may well be that the former is not an option.
Guilty of a 'war crime'?
"There was absolutely atrocious and unacceptable violence in Aguelhok. There were summary executions of soldiers and civilians… There's talk of around 100 who were captured and killed in cold blood."
- Henri de Raincourt, French Development Minister
The second question is whether the MNLA is guilty of the war crime. The government claims that the MNLA executed 82 captured soldiers and civilians at Aguelhok (pop. 8,000-10,000) on January 24.
There is no doubt that many people were killed at Aguelhok. A Mali security source told Reuters that dozens of Malian troops were killed. "It was real carnage," he said. An MNLA spokesman confirmed that at least 50 soldiers were killed in the fighting. Government sources have put the number higher, at 82 and 97.
News of the deaths was quickly followed by rumours that the troops stationed in Aguelhok had run out of ammunition. Not surprisingly, public demonstrations immediately demanded to know why soldiers had been sent into battle so ill-equipped. Within forty-eight hours, reports began circulating that many of the soldiers had been taken captive by the rebels and then executed, either with a bullet to the head or by slitting their throats. The defence ministry stated that the attack had been undertaken by "AQIM jihadis, MNLA forces and others".
After a hasty commission of enquiry, the army stated that both soldiers and civilians had been executed, some with their throats cut and that these acts could only have been done by AQIM. Speaking earlier the same day, French Development Minister Henri de Raincourt, who visited Bamako, said "there was absolutely atrocious and unacceptable violence in Aguelhok. There were summary executions of soldiers and civilians… There's talk of around 100 who were captured and killed in cold blood," he added, saying the tactic "resembled that used by al-Qaeda".
If captured soldiers were executed, as the Mali government claims, then it was a war crime. But, was such a war crime committed and, if so, by whom?
The government's evidence consists of little more than its own assertions and photographs of dubious authenticity. Photographs of the supposed killings placed on Facebook and the internet by Mali government "supporters" at the end of January have been removed. However, five of them remain accessible, with one identified by the MNLA as being of a massacre undertaken by Boko Haram in Nigeria on March 2, 2010; the authenticity of the other four has not yet been established. The MNLA's communications officer has confirmed that they are not of Aguelhok. International news agencies remain suspicious of their authenticity.
Until a credible international agency undertakes a full examination of the incident, including the exhumation and forensic examination of the bodies, the executions must remain unproven allegations.
However, if we accept, for the time being, that a war crime was perpetrated at Aguelhok, the question still remains: Who was responsible for it?
Aguelhok villagers say that the MNLA attacked Aguelhok on January 24 and killed only soldiers in the fighting. The next day, people whom the villagers identified as AQIM came and carried out the massacre. There were no MNLA in Aguelhok at the time. The MNLA returned three days later and raised their flag over Aguelhok.
The Mali authorities, as well as Mauritania's President Abdel Aziz, accuse the MNLA of being in an alliance with AQIM and insist that the executions are proof of this alliance. However, as Tuareg are not known either to slit throats as a form of killing humans or to kill their captives in cold blood, the accusation is directed more at the AQIM part of the supposed MNLA-AQIM alliance, with the name Iyad ag Aghaly being mentioned prominently. Indeed, a propaganda video believed to have been produced by Mali's intelligence service, Mauritania's President and a number of reports attributed to Mali official sources, have all pointed the finger at Iyad.
Iyad is a former Tuareg rebel leader who has been involved with Algeria's secret police, the DRS, in several operations since 2003. He is also closely associated with AQIM's local emir, Abdelhamid Abou Zaïd, who, in turn, is a DRS agent. In December, Iyad announced his own jihadist group, the Ansar al-Din.
If Iyad was involved in the executions, the question is whether he was operating on his own initiative or whether he involved with either or both Algeria's DRS and Abdelhamid abou Zaid's group of AQIM, which is based near Aguelhok.
If Abou Zaid and AQIM, either independently or in association with Iyad, were responsible for the alleged executions, then Algeria's DRS is implicated, begging the question: What was the Algerian army doing in Aguelhok at or around that time? Local observers reported an Algerian army convoy of five army trucks with trailers and 24 heavily armed 4x4s heading south from Bordj Mokhtar to Tessalit and Aguelhok around December 20. They estimated the number of troops, garrisoned at both Tessalit and Aguelhok, at around 200.
What were these troops doing in Aguelhok and had they been withdrawn by the time of the alleged executions? The Algerian government said its army was in Mali to help combat AQIM. That, however, was untrue, as no attacks have been launched at any time against AQIM in Mali by either Mali or Algerian forces. Indeed, one of the MNLA's main complaints against the Mali government has been its reluctance to undertake any meaningful attack on AQIM.
Many local Tuareg believe that the Algerian army's presence at Tessalit and Aguelhok was not to fight AQIM, but to protect it from the MNLA, which has threatened to rid Mali of AQIM. Indeed, the MNLA has said that the reason why AQIM is protected by both Algeria and Mali is because AQIM is a cover for the massive, billion-dollar, cocaine trafficking industry that is controlled by rogue elements in the political-military elites of both countries and which has turned Mali into a "narco-state".
Jeremy Keenan is a professor of social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and is the author of The Dark Sahara: America's War on Terror in Africa (Pluto Press, 2009).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.