BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's Tuareg rebels, who have seized control of the country's distant north in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup in the capital, declared independence Friday of the Azawad nation.
"We, the people of the Azawad," they said in a statement published on the rebel website, "proclaim the irrevocable independence of the state of the Azawad starting from this day, Friday, April 6, 2012."
The military chiefs of 13 of Mali's neighbors met Thursday in Ivory Coast to start hashing out plans for a military intervention in order to restore constitutional rule in the capital and push back the rebels in the north. France, which earlier said it is willing to offer logistical support for the operation, announced Friday that it does not recognize the new state.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said "a unilateral declaration of independence that is not recognized by African states means nothing for us."
The traditionally nomadic Tuareg people have been fighting for independence for the northern half of Mali since at least 1958, when Tuareg elders wrote a letter addressed to the French president asking their colonial rulers to carve out a separate homeland for the Tuareg people. Instead the north, where the lighter-skinned Tuareg people live, was made part of the same country as the south, where the dark-skinned ethnic groups controlled the capital and the nation's finances.
The Tuaregs fought numerous rebellions, but it wasn't until a March 21 coup in Bamako toppled the nation's elected government that the fighters were able to make significant gains. In a three-day period last week they seized the three largest cities in the north, as soldiers dumped their uniforms and retreated.
Their independence declaration cited 50 years of misrule by the country's southern-based administration and was issued by the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, whose army is led by a Tuareg senior commander who fought in the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's military.
The group is secular and its stated aim is creating a homeland for the Tuareg people. However, they were helped by an Islamist faction, Ansar Dine, which abides by the extreme Salafi reading of the Quran. They are now attempting to apply Sharia law to Mali's moderate north, including in the fabled tourist destination of Timbuktu.
In all three of the major cities in the north, residents say they do not know which of the two factions has the upper hand. In the city of Gao, from where the NMLA declaration of independence was written, a resident said that it appeared that the Islamist faction was in control, and not the NMLA.
"I heard the declaration but I'm telling you the situation on the ground. We barely see the NMLA. The people we see are the Salafis," said the young man, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. "I can't tell which group they are exactly, but we know they are the Islamists because of their beards. They are the people in control of Gao. I'm right near the Algerian consulate right now which they have taken control of and they are here. They are armed and other are in the back of their pickup trucks," he said.
On Thursday, residents confirmed that the Ansar Dine faction stormed the Algerian consulate, and took the consul and six other employees hostage. Their fate is unknown.
Foreign governments are concerned that the Islamist wing of the rebel movement is providing cover for al-Qaida's North African branch, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. The terrorist organization has kidnapped scores of Western tourists and aid workers and is known to have at least three bases in northern Mali. The cell is led by Algerian extremists, who were chased out of their own country and forced to flee south into Mali. There are unconfirmed reports that the attack on the Algerian consulate was led by AQIM, with the help of Ansar Dine.
Until the recent rebel takeover, AQIM's fighters were never seen in the towns, living on remote desert bases or in thick forests. They employed locals as runners, to bring them supplies as well as to transport the proof of life of the half a dozen hostages they are still holding, including Italian, French and Spanish nationals.
Ousmane Halle, the mayor of Timbuktu, said that the Ansar Dine faction has taken over the military base in the center of the ancient city. Their fighters include men with beards who do not speak Tamashek, the Tuareg language, meaning that they are not Tuareg, even though they claim to be fighting on behalf of the Tuareg people.
"They do not speak any African language as far as I can tell. In fact, I don't believe any of them are African ... Even the ones that speak Arabic, speak an Arabic that doesn't come from around here," said Halle, who explained that their dress and appearance leads him to believe that they are likely foreign fighters recruited by the al-Qaida franchise.
The power struggle at the heart of the Tuareg rebellion adds another layer of uncertainty to the current crisis. Many worry that the extremists may coopt the independence movement in order to create a terror state.
Associated Press writer Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali and Michelle Faul in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.