Clashes erupted at Mali’s presidential palace as army mutineers overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure’s rule last month in a military coup that came against the backdrop of a battle between the army and Tuareg fighters in the country’s north.
Anger had been fomenting among army ranks over the government’s recent handling of the Tuareg-led rebellion, which critics say has exposed its inability to control its national territory.
The renewed fighting first broke out when Tuareg rebels exchanged gunfire with Malian soldiers in the northern town of Menaka on January 17 this year, ending the fragile peace established between separatists and the government in 2009.
Mali experienced Tuareg uprisings in the 1960s and 1990s, then again in early 2000 and between 2006 and 2009. The nomadic group have been demanding recognition of their identity and an independent state in the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
In the latest rebellion, insurgents have organised themselves under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a movement founded at the end of 2011 by a fusion of rebel groups. It has been spurred by the return of thousands of well-armed and experienced Tuareg from fighting for the late Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
The MNLA is led by secretary general Bilal Ag Acherif and head of the political wing Mahmoud Ag Aghali, according to its website.
According to statements released on their website, the MNLA began fighting “to protect and progressively re-occupy the Azawad territory”, citing the Malian government’s failure to engage in dialogue and the deployment of troops in the region.
Azawad is the Tuareg name for the country’s northern region, encompassing the areas of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao.
The three regional capitals were long-time targets for the MNLA, and the group managed to seize them during a powerful three-day offensive at the end of March as Mali’s army units retreated.
The MNLA has made several other strategic advances recently, including the capturing of Tessalit, a key garrison town by the Algerian border. It has reiterated that it is “determined to continue their operations until Mali recognises the Azawad’s population right to self-determination”.
The government has accused the Tuareg-led insurgents of fighting alongside al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has been responsible for a number of kidnappings and trafficking operations in recent months. The rebels have denied the allegations.
The clashes have claimed dozens of lives and forced up to 200,000 civilians to flee their homes, leading rights group Amnesty International to deem the situation a human rights and humanitarian crisis.
The United Nations and allies, such as former colonial power France, have called for a ceasefire and negotiations to end the ongoing fighting.
The MNLA hold over the northern regions is said to be precarious after reports emerged that their Islamist battlefield allies were trying to push them out to impose sharia law, an interest the MNLA does not share.
This new Islamist movement, whose name means “defenders of the faith” in Arabic, was formed by renowned Tuareg commander Iyad Ag Ghaly, who led the rebellion between 1990 and 1995.
He then became a key player in peace talks between the government and Tuareg during the 2006-2007 rebellion.
Ansar Dine made its presence on the northern battlefield known in February with the release of a video seen in which it says it wants to impose sharia law in Mali and names Ag Ghaly its commander.
Both the MNLA and Ansar Dine fought together for Kidal and Timbuktu. In both cases, Ghaly made a triumphant entrance and planted black flags bearing the Islamic statement of faith around the captured towns.
In Timbuktu, citizens reported that he chased out the MNLA and had begun ordering women to cover themselves with veils, saying they did not want independence, but Islamic law.
Residents reported women in the normally secular city that held a major rock music festival in January were covering their hair and none were wearing trousers.
Long said to have ties to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ag Ghaly’s military victories have seen him flanked by the fighter group’s most notorious leaders.
Ag Ghaly, described in US diplomatic cables as an unpredictable and “inscrutable character” had at one point been in the government’s good books, and was sent by Bamako as an envoy to Saudia Arabia.
He was reportedly expelled from that country in 2010 for having links to radicals. While he appears to have abandoned the Tuareg national cause, the details of why remain murky.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
AQIM stems from a group started in the late 1990s by hardline Algerian Islamists, who, in 2007, formally subscribed to al-Qaeda’s ideology. These fighters, numbering around 300, have spun a tight network across tribal and business lines that stretch across the Sahel, supporting poor communities and protecting traffickers.
They are comfortable operating in the harsh desert terrain and have made millions from ransoms of European hostages.
Along with a splinter group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, which also claims involvement in the rebel advance, AQIM is currently holding 13 Western hostages.
Notorious AQIM leader, the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who has been sentenced to death for attacks in his home country, made an appearance in Timbuktu on Monday alongside Ag Ghaly. His return came after a reported shopping trip for weapons in Libya.
Known as “the uncatchable” or “Mister Marlboro” for his smuggling activities, Belmokhtar’s role in Mali’s unrest is unclear but AQIM is likely taking advantage of the chaos to deepen its hold in the region.
AQIM chiefs Belmokhtar, Abou Zeid and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam met with Malian Islamist leaders and are said to be staying at the Timbuktu military camp, now under rebel control.
Also operating in the Sahel – often in a symbiotic relationship with AQIM and Tuareg tribes – are various criminal groups involved in drugs and weapons trafficking who could benefit from the political disarray.