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Rebel alliances strengthen in Mali's north, rattling neighboring countries

The northern two-thirds of Mali is now under control of Tuareg and Islamist rebels who want to redraw national boundaries and export revolution. Displaced minorities tell of brutality.

By Derek Henry FloodContributor / June 1, 2012

A billboard at the entrance to King Fahd Bridge in Bamako depicts the country's current political chaos with a weeping north and a questioning south, Wednesday, May 30.

Derek Henry Flood


Bamako, Mali

Here in Mali's capital city, after a military coup, it's not entirely clear who is in charge.

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Mali's elected president, Amadou Toumani Toure, has been thrown out of power by mid-ranking officers. Those officers have put in place a politician, Dioncounda Traore, who was promptly beaten by civilian protesters in his own palace and is now seeking medical treatment in France. The coup leaders, in the meantime, have promised to hand over power to a civilian government once elections have been held, although they have not given a timeline yet. 

Up north, however, there is no question who is in charge.

With the May 26 announcement of an independent state of Azawad, two rebel groups -- the salafist group Ansar Eddine, and the ethnic Tuareg group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad -- Mali's three vast regions of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao, are now effectively out of Bamako's reach. And while many experts had predicted the philosophies of these two groups would keep them at odds -- Ansar seeks a theocracy based on Islamic sharia law, while the MNLA seeks an independent state for ethnic Tuaregs -- there is little sign of competition, and many signs of consolidation.

For Mali's neighbors, some of whom have their own ethnic insurgencies and Islamist rebel groups to contend with, and for aid groups, who had already been warning about a looming food crisis in Mali, this is the worst-case scenario. With two-thirds of Mali's territory now either ungoverned or under the control of groups who seek to redraw national boundaries and to export revolution, the March 22 coup in Mali has given West Africa its own Afghanistan or Somalia, a no-go zone for aid groups and a haven for extremist groups to govern their own affairs, train and arm themselves, and prepare the next revolution across the border. 

On Tuesday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the formation of Azawad. 

"ECOWAS strongly condemns this opportunistic move, which will only worsen the plight of the populations already suffering atrocities and deprivation in the occupied Malian territory, and further threaten regional peace and security," ECOWAS said in a statement.

Ansar Eddine, which is said to have two distinct jihadist groups – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – has been hoisting black banners similar to those used by the Islamic State of Iraq at the height of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency in Baghdad. Ansar says that it seeks not to secede from the Malian republic but to create a theocratic state.  


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