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Tacit French support of separatists in Mali brings anger, charges of betrayal

The rise to power, again, of the ethnic Turareg MNLA has Malians angry and wondering about Europe's role and commitment to their security and unity.

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Drivers who recently travelled to the region said that the MNLA is charging between $60 and $80 dollars to enter, and $80 to $100 more to enter Kidal city. The same fees apply when exiting Kidal. 

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The MNLA paper for drivers shows an exercise of authority: The document, written in both French and Arabic and is replete with a header that reads, “State of Azawad: Unity, Liberty, Security,” requires details on the driver, the type of vehicle, the owner of the vehicle, and various registration numbers.

Toward the bottom, a stamp depicts a map of the aspirational borders of an independeant Azawad, includes the regions of Gao and Timbuktu.

“They said their goal was to fight the Islamists and to restore the territorial integrity of Mali, but now they are helping separatists,” says an elected official in Gao who asked not to be named, speaking of the French. “They are working with the terrorists!” he shouts, pointing at the document in question.

Residents in Gao fear that the money earned by transit taxes will be used to fund another separatist rebellion; the MNLA contends that in the wake of several suicide bombings in and around the city, the documentation and taxation are necessary in order to maintain security. 

"All vehicles within the territory controlled by the MNLA must have this document," Moussa Ag Assarid, the European MNLA representative, told Reuters in Paris. "In this way we can differentiate between potential terrorists, drug traffickers, and ordinary drivers."

Past ties to Islamists

The MNLA first gained control of northern Mali when it fought alongside Islamist rebels – some of whom are linked to Al-Qaeda – to drive the Malian army from a vast desert expanse roughly the size of Texas.

But the separatists were quickly outmaneuvered – militarily and politically – by their allies of convenience and were driven from all of the major towns and cities in the region. 

But for much of the population in Gao – northern Mali’s largest city of approximately 85,000 – the MNLA’s brief reign was associated with systemic looting, human rights abuses, and seen as enabling the Islamist takeover.

The MNLA contends that the Malian military cannot be trusted in Kidal, citing a history of past abuse as well as more recent allegations of extrajudicial killings of ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs by Malian forces. 

Mali’s interim-President Dioncounda Traoré has stated he is open to negotiating with the MNLA provided it abandons calls for independence. For its part, the MNLA has stated it would be willing to accept some sort of negotiated autonomy, but has refused to disarm ahead of any talks.  

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