Burkina Faso's foreign affairs minister Djibril Bassole and Malia's junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo attend a news conference in Kati, outside Mali's capital Bamako, April 1. Sanogo promised to reinstate the constitution from Sunday, hours before a deadline set by West African neighbors to start handing over power, and as rebels encircled the ancient trading post of Timbuktu.

Mali coup leaders pledge to hand over power as Tuareg rebels take Timbuktu

Disarray following a March 21 coup has allowed Tuareg rebels to take over much of Mali's north. West African neighbors worry about spillover. 

Tuareg rebels in Mali’s north claim to have taken the fabled city of Timbuktu on Sunday, the latest in a string of military successes following the Malian Army’s overthrow of the elected government last month.

A wave of Tuareg military victories is the direct result of instability following a March 21 coup, led by junior officers in the Malian Army. It’s an ironic fact, given that the junior officers who launched the coup did so because they felt the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure was not providing them with the funding, arms, or supplies to defend the country against a resurgent Tuareg rebellion in the north. Now, within the past few days, Tuareg rebels have taken the major garrison towns of Kidal, Gao, and now Timbuktu (see map), raising concerns for Mali’s West African neighbors about the Army’s capacity to retain control of the country.

Coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo – increasingly isolated by Mali’s West African neighbors -- announced on Sunday that he would reinstate the country’s Constitution and would hand over power to a civilian government as soon as elections can be held.

Why a Mali rebellion worries the region

In the days before Sept. 11, 2001, a rebellion in Mali would have caused few ripples outside of the capitals of West Africa. Tuaregs launched rebellions in the 1990s and as recently as 2006, and Mali has experienced coups – the president who was ousted in March, Mr. Toure, himself came to power in a March 1991 coup. But in the post-9/11 world, the combination of a military coup and a separatist rebellion is a matter of deep concern far beyond the arid sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel.

For one thing, the Tuareg rebels marching from one town to another seem to have been unintended beneficiaries of the military overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi had established entire Tuareg battalions within the Libyan army and had funded separatist rebels in many of his weaker neighbors. Adding to the discomfort is the fact that a small but active chapter of Al Qaeda uses northern Mali as a base of operations, and any disarray for the Malian Army would only serve to strengthen this group, even if it has no direct relationship with Tuareg rebels.

The US military’s new African Command – known as Africom – has spent a good deal of time and millions of dollars training Mali’s army to fight a counter-insurgency campaign against the Islamist group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic lands of the Maghreb (AQIM). Those training programs and future funding for new military equipment have been suspended following the March 21 coup.

Mark Toner, the US State Department’s spokesman, condemned the coup and said that the US would back the efforts of West African leaders to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on Mali until the coup leaders restore power to a civilian government.

"We echo ECOWAS's call for the mutineers to step down and allow for a swift return to democratic rule and for presidential elections to ultimately take place," Mr. Toner said at a press conference in Washington over the weekend, referring to the regional group, the Economic Community for West African States.

For humanitarian agencies, the war and the dispersal of some 200,000 Malian civilians from their homes, couldn’t come at a worse time. Lower than usual rainfall and higher temperatures had created a drought that threatened the ability of a number of West African nations, including Mali, to feed themselves, and UN and private aid agencies were struggling to provide food for as many as 15 million affected people. Now conflict in Mali makes the emergency even more difficult to respond to.

“We are in a race against time and some of the harshest climatic conditions on the planet,” said John Ging, director of operations for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, after a recent visit to to Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania.

New promises

A three-day deadline imposed by ECOWAS for coup leaders to step down passed on Sunday night. ECOWAS leaders are now studying coup leader Sanogo’s promise to hold elections soon.

On Sunday night, Sanogo promised that he would immediately reinstate the country’s 1992 constitution, effectively ending the broad military powers of a state of emergency. Sanogo also said he would create an interim team "with the aim of organizing peaceful, free, open and democratic elections in which we will not take part." He also said he would dispatch envoys to the north to negotiate a cease-fire with the Tuareg rebels.

For their part, the Tuareg fighters say that after the takeover of Timbuktu, their military mission is accomplished.

"Timbuktu was the final city to fall under our control," said Moussa Ag Assarid said, according to the Wall Street Journal. "In military terms, our mission has been accomplished."

But as the reported takeover of Timbuktu indicates, Tuareg fighters may not be in a negotiating mood. And as they advance across the north, one question emerges: How much of Mali will be left over for a new civilian government to control?

Keep Calm, a winking reference to the World War II slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On," aims to provide a bit of context to help make sense of confusing news events.

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