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Did Qaddafi downfall prompt Mali's Tuareg revolt?

Mali's military has been training to take on Al Qaeda insurgents, but the latest revolt by Mali's nomadic Tuareg people seems inspired by an influx of former Qaddafi fighters and arms.

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It is the presence of these two distinct militant movements – the separatist Tuaregs and the radical Islamist AQIM – that has often confused the outside world, says Barbara Worley, an anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston who has been studying Tuareg society since the 1970s. But there is nothing to suggest that these two distinct movements are coordinating their activities against the Malian government.

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“The Tuareg generally practice a moderate form of Islam and reject any form of extremism,” Ms. Worley says.

“What they want is to govern themselves and they want more to see more development in the area they see as traditionally belonging to them.”

But the Malian government has accused the Tuareg of fighting the bloodiest battle so far in the rebellion alongside fighters from AQIM. Although Mali has not said there is an ongoing link between the two groups, Mali says that AQIM militants fought with the NMLA around the town of Aguelhok. The government says dozens of soldiers in Aguelhok were killed on Jan. 24. It is an accusation that the NMLA deny.

Working from within

Not all Tuareg support the current rebellion and there are many Tuareg and those from other ethnic groups who live in Mali's north who think the best way to develop the region is as part of the Malian state. If there were to a referendum on the issue, it’s unlikely a majority of people in Mali's north would vote for independence.

Indeed some argue that the current rebellion would have never have happened had it not been for one thing – the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Thousands of Tuareg moved over the years across the Sahara to Libya, mainly attracted to the better standard of living there. Many joined Qaddafi's armed forces. As the Qaddafi regime began to fall most of these Tuareg no longer felt safe in Libya and headed back to Mali. They brought with them weapons and vehicles. The head of the NMLA's military wing is a former Libyan colonel.

Worley says although the Libyan returnees were a major boost for the NMLA these aren't the only people part of the movement.

“The vast majority of the people involved in these rebellions are just young people,” Worely says.

“They are young men with not much military experience, but a lot of passion.”

For the moment it seems that the fighting in Mali is set to continue. After having been put on the back foot in the first days of the rebel, the Malian Army is now fighting back, reclaiming towns it abandoned to the rebels.

The Malian foreign Minister, Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, said on Tuesday that the government was open to negotiations, but that any power sharing agreement would have to be a system that could also work for the other regions of Mali too.

And with the rebels saying the government must at least accept the principle of self determination for the north of Mali before any talks take place, Mali’s latest Tuareg rebellion could go on for some time yet.

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