Mali's desert Tuaregs proclaimed independence for what they call the state of Azawad on Friday after capturing key towns this week in an advance that caught the West African country's newly-installed junta off guard.
Nomadic Tuaregs have nurtured the dream of secession since Mali's own independence from France in 1960 but have little foreign support for a move neighbors fear could encourage other separatist movements. Paris immediately dismissed the move.
This week's seizure of Mali's north - a desert zone bigger than France - came with the help of arms and men spilling out of Libya's conflict. It was backed by Islamists with ties to al Qaeda, triggering fears of the emergence of a new rogue state.
"The Executive Committee of the MNLA calls on the entire international community to immediately recognize, in a spirit of justice and peace, the independent state of Azawad," Billal Ag Acherif, secretary-general of the Tuareg-led MNLA rebel group MNLA said on its www.mnlamov.net home page.
The statement listed decades of Tuareg grievances over their treatment by governments dominated by black southerners in the distant capital Bamako. It said the group recognized all borders with neighboring states and pledged to create a democratic state based on the principles of the United Nations charter.
It was datelined in the town of Gao, which along with the ancient trading post of Timbuktu and other northern towns fell to rebels in a matter of 72 hours this week as soldiers in Mali's army either defected to the rebellion or fled.
"This is really a bad joke," Toure Alassane, a 42-year-old native of Timbuktu said at a gathering of about 200 northerners protesting against the move in the capital Bamako.
"It will never work. You don't just declare independence when people don't have food to eat and nothing is functioning in the north," he said. Widespread food shortages caused by last year's rain failure have been aggravated by the insecurity.
In the northern town of Kidal, one resident said control was not in the hands of the separatist MNLA but of the Ansar Dine Islamist group which seeks to impose sharia law across Mali.
"Nothing goes without their say," the resident said.
France rejected the declaration and French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said it was up to Mali's neighbours to see whether negotiations were possible with the MNLA - a move that could target an autonomy deal short of full independence.
"A unilateral declaration of independence which is not recognised by African states would not have any meaning for us," Longuet told foreign reporters in Paris.
Deal with the junta?
The advance capitalized on confusion in Bamako after a March 22 coup by mid-ranking officers whose main goal had been to beef up efforts to quash the rebellion.
Mali's worried neighbors see the handover of power back to civilians as a precondition for moves to help stabilize the country and have imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions aimed at forcing junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo to step down.
On Thursday a team of mediators said they were hopeful Sanogo would soon announce steps that would allow them to drop the sanctions on Africa's third largest gold miner, which include the closure of borders and the suspension of its account at the regional central bank.
"We are going to do everything so that these sanctions are not only suspended but completely removed. We are getting there," Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole told Malian television after talks with Sanogo.
"I can assure you that the captain is aware and taking measures. He will soon make some announcements in that direction," added Bassole, whose country represents the 15-state ECOWAS regional grouping as a mediator in the crisis.
There was no immediate response from the junta.
Separately, ECOWAS military planners prepared the mandate for a force of up to 3,000 soldiers which could be deployed in Mali with the dual aim of securing the return to constitutional order and halting any further rebel advance.
France's Longuet put MNLA's fighting strength at a maximum 3,000 forces and estimated that was 10 times the combined head count of Ansar Dine. He reaffirmed that France could provide an ECOWAS force with logistical help including transport.
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