It took just a few months of combat for Tuareg rebels in Mali, battle-hardened by their time fighting for Libya’s late leader Moammar Kadafi, to achieve a century-old dream: conquering a huge swath of northern Mali that they see as their homeland.
Even if the rebels never win international recognition, their battlefield successes have in effect partitioned the West African nation. Neither the country’s new military junta nor leaders of neighboring nations appear capable of overturning the recent gains by the rebels, analysts say.
After a military coup in March that toppled the government a month before elections, the main Tuareg rebels took several key cities, including Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, a stunning advance that saw the collapse of Mali’s army in the north.
The chaos has fed fear that Islamic militants will take advantage of the rebels’ success to advance their agendas, that the weak military junta will cling to power in the south, and that problems of poverty and drug running will be exacerbated.
The coup stemmed from outrage in the military over the government’s failure to properly equip troops to fight the heavily armed Tuareg force, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known by its French acronym, MNLA.
In response to the coup, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States on Monday imposed sanctions that include a blockade that could starve the landlocked country of fuel within days and leave the junta without money from the regional central bank in Senegal to pay soldiers and civil servants.
West Africa is already in the grip of a growing hunger crisis, which the sanctions are likely to worsen in Mali, humanitarian agencies say.
Even without the coup and resulting power vacuum, the MNLA probably would have gained control of the north, said Jeremy Keenan, a professor in the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He said the military’s resistance had largely collapsed even before the overthrow of the government, with troops running out of ammunition in some cases.
The Tuareg consider the region their homeland, which they call Azawad. Many Malians fled towns in the region this week and others stayed indoors; Amnesty International reported looting, violence and the closure of hospitals.
As people lined up for fuel and food Tuesday in Bamako, the capital, economist Moustaphe Doumbia said the country was demoralized and fearful.
“It’s calm at the moment in Bamako, but the population is beginning to be very afraid,” he said in a telephone interview from the city. “The economy is no longer working.... Everyone is beginning to realize that we are going to have trouble surviving. It is a humanitarian disaster that we are facing here.”
While UNESCO worries about the possible destruction of some of Timbuktu’s World Heritage earthen mosques and priceless ancient manuscripts, Western security analysts are concerned that an ally of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the militant group’s regional affiliate, appears to be piggybacking on the rebels’ advances.
The Al Qaeda group, which has no apparent links to the rebels, has been responsible for kidnappings and killings of foreigners, destroying tourism in Timbuktu and undermining an annual desert music festival. Its ally Ansar Dine, or Defenders of Faith, who form part of the northern Mali rebellion, have a different agenda: imposing sharia, or Islamic law, across Mali.
Ansar Dine militants, led by Iyad ag Aghaly, have swooped into towns conquered by the MNLA in recent days, raised their black flag and told shopkeepers and imams that sharia was being imposed.
But Keenan said the group, consisting of a few hundred fighters, played an insignificant role in the rebels’ seizure of the north.
Aghaly’s “contribution on the military front is small,” he said. “What seems to happen is that when they move into a town, the MNLA take out the military base — not that there’s much resistance — and Iyad goes into town and puts up his flag and starts bossing everyone around about sharia law.”
Mali’s new military junta, led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, may have hoped the coup would win support in the region: It appealed to neighboring countries to send troops to defeat the rebels. Instead the economic community’s leaders said they were willing to send 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers to try to crush the northern rebellion — once the junta stepped aside.
Sanogo has said the junta will stand down and make way for elections that he and other junta members won’t contest, but has given no time frame. The coup has some support among Malians, partly because of widespread corruption in the country, which has become a major transit route for Latin American drugs destined for Europe.
Meanwhile, the army appears to have no hope of pushing back the Tuareg rebels, many of whom fought as mercenaries in Kadafi’s army or alongside his loyalists in the Libyan war last year. With the defeat of Kadafi, their longtime patron, thousands of the rebels flooded into Mali with a huge arsenal of heavy arms. They then launched a rebellion in January.
Having taken Azawad, the Tuareg leadership has indicated it has no plans to move south.
“Now Mali can’t beat these people,” said Doumbia, the economist. “The military [forces] do not have enough equipment, but also, even if they had the arms, they are totally demoralized.”
If Mali’s neighbors do send troops into the north, one of the harshest environments on Earth, it could spark more chaos in the region, Keenan said. Tuaregs also reside in Niger, Algeria and Libya.
“It could spread into a regional conflagration,” he said. “The Tuaregs would see it as a race war. You might get Tuaregs from other countries coming across to join the fight.”
A West African force “would probably get humiliated against the Tuaregs, who are very hardened and seasoned fighters.... They’re happy to die for it,” Keenan said, referring to Azawad independence.
Some analysts are predicting a revolt or counter-coup as the sanctions’ bite worsens. Without access to goods transported through Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal, “we will quickly be in chaos,” Doumbia said. “There will be a revolt.”
Times staff writer Dixon reported from Johannesburg and special correspondent Labous from London.