Islamist and al-Qaeda forces, along with former Gadhafi mercenaries, have wrested control over Mali’s entire northern territory with the recent seizure of a key Malian city, an unsettling outcome which marks just one of the ugly after-effects of Libya’s civil war.
The recent seizure of Timbuktu, located 600 miles north of Mali’s capital of Bamako, by rebel forces battling the Malian government represented the government’s last major stronghold seizure in the north. Having already lost the northern Mali cities of Kidal and Gao only days earlier, the capture of Timbuktu has marked the effective end of the Malian government’s control over its northern territory, a desert region larger than France.
More importantly, there are now fears that a rebellion that began in January as a separatist movement is being overtaken by Islamist and al-Qaeda factions. These factions are not interested in a creating a separate secular state but rather are intent on turning the entire country of Mali into a Sharia-run Islamic state.
Initially, the rebellion against the Malian government had been launched as a separatist movement by the nomadic Tuareg people to form an independent state in Mali’s northern Azawad region. The Tuareg were led by fighters who had once worked as mercenaries for Muammar Gadhafi before his death in October 2011. Once they returned home, these mercenaries launched a push for Tuareg independence under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
Fueling the Tuareg push for statehood was a huge stash of Libyan weaponry the Tuareg mercenaries had looted from the Gadhafi regime’s unguarded armories and ammunition depots. Yet despite its influx of weapons, the heavily armed MNLA had spent the first two months of the rebellion making little progress, taking a few dozen small towns but failing to capture any of the major population centers in the north.
That, however, all changed with an assist from the Mali military when on March 21 it staged a coup in the capital of Bamako that ousted the country’s democratically elected leader, Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure. That coup, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, was undertaken because disgruntled Mali government soldiers were upset over ineffectual efforts by Toure to fight battles against the Tuareg, in particular Toure’s decision to send poorly trained conscripts to fight.
The coup also prompted the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to react by closing the borders of the landlocked desert nation and threaten to impose economic sanctions on the country if the military junta did not begin immediately handing back power. Those sanctions, among the strictest ever imposed by ECOWAS, included blocking food, fuel and medical imports into the country, rendering a potentially staggering impact on Mali’s already 15 million impoverished citizens. Yet, despite Amadou Sanogo’s promise to reinstate the Malian constitution and organize a transfer of power back to civilians through democratic elections, the junta has ignored demands for an immediate exit from power.
Not surprisingly, opposition forces took immediate advantage of the ensuing political chaos caused by the junta and quickly launched an offensive that saw its forces take the cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. Those victories have now apparently been enough to satiate the MNLA’s appetite. According to MNLA spokesman, Hama Ag Mahmoud, the MNLA does not intend to advance further south on the capital of Bamako. Instead the separatist group would cement its control over newly-captured areas, an understandable position given that the territory it has seized is what it originally sought in order to create an independent state.
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