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Did Libya's revolution topple Mali into crisis?

Maybe, but the Tuaregs have longed for independence for decades, and Mali's security has been declining for years.

By Staff writer / April 6, 2012

Soldiers stand guard at junta headquarters in Kati, outskirt Bamako, Mali, Tuesday. With coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo refusing to step down, surrounding nations have imposed severe financial sanctions on Mali, including the closing of the country's borders and the freezing of its account at the regional central bank.

Rukmini Callimachi/AP

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This year, Mali's restive Tuareg minority has erupted into rebellion after four years of relative quiet, the army has mutinied and seized control of the capital city of Bamako, and today Tuareg separatists declared an independent republic in the country's vast north.

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Is this all NATO's fault?

Not exactly. But the law of unintended consequences is (as usual) rearing its head. In this case, the successful popular uprising against Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya, which was substantially aided by the air power of NATO members, has sent Mali tumbling back into chaos, something that neither France nor the US (two of the major backers of the war to oust Qaddafi) are happy about. Far from it.

The traditionally nomadic Tuareg and their independence aspirations were championed off and on by Qaddafi for decades. During his desperate and bloody war to hang on to power, Tuaregs that had settled in Libya fought on his side. And there are claims that even more Tuaregs were recruited to come to Libya and fight as mercenaries on his behalf.

With Qaddafi's defeat and the seething rage of the Libyan victors against the "African mercenaries" who fought against them – a rage which has also been vented on multiple occasions on people simply guilty of being "in Libya while black" – armed and trained Tuaregs returned home. A renewed insurgency in the north followed.

The first domino to fall in Mali was a coup by a young army captain, Amadou Sanogo. The new ruling junta's initial complaint was that the government wasn't spending enough money and manpower in the fight against the Tuaregs.  But the result of the coup has been to throw the military – trained extensively by the United States and France in recent years, largely because of fears of Islamist militants in the region – into disarray.  This in turn has created more space for the Tuaregs' National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and today's independence declaration. ("Azawad" is a territorial term whose precise meaning is unclear, but includes much of the desert region where Tuareg live.)

The declaration has been rejected from almost every quarter that matters. The African Union, which opposed the intervention to depose Qaddafi, joined France and the European Union in dismissing the notion of a new independent nation.

And an AFP report indicates that the independence declaration is already dividing Mali's Tuareg. Ansar Dine, a smaller armed group led by a Tuareg but with declared pan-Islamist aims that had made common cause with the MNLA in recent months, came out against independence.

"Our war is a holy war. It's a legal war in the name of Islam," Ansar Dine military boss Omar Hamaha said in a videotape obtained by AFP. "We are against independence. We are against revolutions not in the name of Islam." Ansar Dine ("Helpers of Religion") appears to have seized control of the desert cities of Timbuktu and Gao, in the east.

Reports from Gao and Timbuktu suggest Mr. Hamaha's group is already imposing its rough-and-ready ideas about Islamic justice, and he said they have 120 men in custody, some of whom he described as thieves. "We have tied them up and taken their weapons. We beat them well and it's likely we will slit their throats," AFP quotes him as saying. Algeria says that seven of its diplomats working in Gao have been taken hostage.

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