The Malian government says that the majority of Touareg are not involved in a rebellion that has caused chaos and violence throughout the country. But dozens have died and tens of thousands have fled, causing a sudden and acute humanitarian challenge. In Bamako and other towns there have been protests at the regime’s “timid” reaction to the rebellion. The President has called for people not to vent their anger on anyone they think might be an ethnic Touareg.
The Touareg are a nomadic community numbering about 1.5 million who mostly live in northern Mali, northern Niger and southern Algeria. In Mali, they complain that they have been marginalised by the southern government and have staged several rebellions over the years. They are calling for an autonomous Azawad region. Azawad is mostly desert and is criss-crossed by smuggling routes. It also contains natural resources, such as gas, uranium and oil. The latest uprising by Touaregs in Mali began on January 17th.
Political parties have called on the government to hold a forum for peace and reconciliation. The Minister for Infrastructure and Transportation Ahmed Diane Semega stressed that not all Touareg are part of the rebellion. ‘Of the nearly 3,600 Touareg in the national army, fewer than one hundred have deserted,’ he said
The exact number of casualties in this uprising by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad or MNLA – there have been losses both within the rebel ranks and the army – has not been established by independent sources.
“In the past three weeks, at least 10,000 people are reported to have crossed to Niger, 9,000 have found refuge in Mauritania and 3,000 in Burkina Faso,” United Nations High Commission for Refugees spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva. On February 10th UNHCR said it was stepping up its response with aid shipments by air and road to neighbouring countries.
“Many of the new arrivals are sleeping in the open and have little access to shelter, clean water, health services and food,” Edwards said.
The Red Cross estimates that 30,000 others have been displaced within Mali since the first MNLA attack, against the town of Menaka on January 17th. The rebels have gone on to attack several other army garrisons in the north of the country.
Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré has called on Malians not to confuse the insurgents with Touareg civilians more generally. “Those who attacked military barracks and other locations in the north must not be conflated with our other compatriots – Touareg, Arab, Songhai, and Peul – who live with us,” said Touré in a televised address.
Heavily armed Touareg fighters returning from Libya, where they supported the former leader, Colonel Gaddafy, have been blamed for galvanising local Touaregs into the new military action. Military sources say though that 300 Touareg fighters, the largest contingent of returnees from Libya, have been deployed with the Malian army in the areas of Kidal, Tessalit and Gao, all in the north.
The government accuses the MNLA of cooperating with the North African branch of Al Qaeda, AQLIM, which is active in the area.
On its website the MNLA denies links with other groups but confirms that its ranks had been strengthened by returnees from Libya. It criticised the Bamako regime for sending military reinforcements without any attempt at dialogue.
Despite the Touareg organisation’s claims that it acts alone however, some commentators have spoken of alliances. Magharebia.com said there was a “web of allegiances” between the different groups in the region while Jeune Afrique described power arrangements being made and unmade between troubled characters – part-drug traffickers, part-rebels, sometime-Islamists, and often opportunists.
Algeria has been helping Mali militarily in its battle against AQLIM terrorism but, in a move designed to increase pressure for a peaceful settlement, announced that it was suspending military aid to Mali while at the same time mediating talks with Touareg rebels. Algeria’s decision came after Mali halted counter-terror operations in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu and redirected troops towards areas under Touareg rebellion. The Algerian decision was reportedly taken to prevent Mali from using Algeria’s military support against the Azawad rebel movement.
The Malian army said on February 13th that soldiers and civilians had been summarily executed during a Touareg offensive in the town of Aguelhok, and France accused the killers of adopting Al-Qaeda-style tactics. Some 82 people were said to have been executed in the town on January 24th.
Colonel Idrissa Traore, head of the army’s information service said he believed these acts could only have been committed by AQLIM.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that “it’s not very clear what role Al-Qaeda or AQLIM has played in these attacks, but there have been appalling massacres that we have condemned.” The announcement marked France’s first suggestion of a link between AQLIM and the MNLA.
The Azaouad or Azawad is the name for the main Tamashek-speaking parts of northern Mali, northern Niger, and part of southern Algeria. It does not correspond to any single administrative region, but it includes portions of the Kidal Region of Mali and the Tahoua Region and Agadez Region of Niger, and large portions of southern Algeria.