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 their 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 hash out plans for a military intervention to push back the rebels in the north, as well as to restore constitutional rule after disgruntled soldiers last month stormed the presidential palace and sent the democratically elected leader into hiding. The confusion in the capital created an opening for the rebels in the north, who have been attempting to claim independence for more than 50 years.
France, which earlier said it is willing to offer logistical support for a military invasion, announced Friday that it does not recognize the new Tuareg state.
"A unilateral declaration of independence that is not recognized by African states means nothing for us," said French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet. The European Union concurred.
"We will certainly not accept this declaration. It's out of the question," said Richard Zinc, the head of the European Union delegation in Bamako.
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 called "Azawad" in their language. 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 accuse the southerners of marginalizing the north and of concentrating development, including lucrative aid projects, in the south. They fought numerous rebellions attempting to wrestle the north free, 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 Azawad. 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, where women have been told to wear veils and not be seen in public with males who are not relatives.
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, 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.
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.
Until the recent rebel takeover, AQIM's fighters were never seen in the towns, living on remote desert bases. They employed locals as runners, to bring them supplies as well as to transport the proof of life of the half-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," 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 co-opt the independence movement in order to create a terror state.
The black ethnic groups that live in the north are concerned that the creation of the Tuareg state will mean they will be chased out of their own homes. Already the roughly 300 Christians living in Timbuktu have fled, said the mayor.
The representative of Timbuktu in the nation's parliament in Bamako, who is from the dark-skinned Sonrai ethnicity, said there will be civil war if the Tuaregs attempt to impose their will on blacks in the north.
"I consider that the communique regarding the independence of the Azawad by the MNLA is null and void," El Hadji Baba Haidara said on Friday. "An armed movement cannot speak in the name of the people of the Azawad."
Associated Press writers Martin Vogl in Bamako and Michelle Faul in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.