Libyan dictator Gadhafi may be dead, but the aftermath of his wars is still affecting the region. Mali is fighting Tuareg rebels who want an independent region in the north. Al-Qaeda could benefit from the conflict.
The nomadic Tuareg people refer to northern Mali as the "Azawad." For almost two months, the poor and impassable desert region, which is the size of France, has been the battleground for heavy fighting between Malian armed forces and the new Tuareg rebel group National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA). There's contradictory information on casualty figures. But the battle for Azawad is a threat to the country's stability, experts say.
"The intensity of the fighting is a result of the civil war in Libya and the NATO deployment there," said Mali expert Georg Klute of Bayreuth University. Media reports state that up to 4,000 Tuareg mercenaries fled to their home countries - mostly to Niger and Mali - after Moammar Gadhafi was ousted. But there are no reliable figures. Most of them were mercenaries in Gadhafi's army, defending the dictator's power in the Libyan spring.
Once they returned to Mali, some of them were recruited to work for the army, but others joined the rebels' ranks, said Klute. Thanks to Libya, the Tuareg were in possession of heavy weapons such as missiles, sniper rifles and armor-piercing ammunition.
"For the most part, these kinds of weapons are more advanced in comparison to the weapons of the Malian army. That's the novelty in this rebellion," said Malian ethnologist Mamadou Diawara of the University of Frankfurt.
Former Libyan Colonel Mohamad ag Najem defected to Mali in mid-2011. There, he founded the NMLA which sees itself as a revolutionary movement and voice of the Tuareg people. But the rebels count other minorities such as Arabs, Moors and Fulani among their supporters as well.
The NMLA is fighting for its own independent state of Azawad. On its website, the rebels' group demands "unity - freedom - justice" and posts updates on the battle in Mali's north.
"We've tried peaceful, democratic means, but we only ended up in a dead end. We wanted to negotiate, but the government only responds with military force," said rebel spokesman Moussa Ag Assari.
According to the United Nations, more than 120,000 people have fled because of the heavy fighting. About half of them fled to Mali's neighboring coutries Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Niger. These countries are also home to Tuareg minorities.
Little control over Mali's north
The rebels' fight for autonomy is as old as the declarations of independence of the respective states. About 1.5 million Tuareg live in the Sahel region. Since 1960, some of the nomads have regularly fought for their own state - especially in Mali and Chad. A conflict which took place between 2007 and 2009 was finally settled by means of a peace treaty negotiated by Gadhafi.
But all negotiations have failed so far in the latest conflict. Mali's government, headed by President Amadou Toure, says it's not an option to divide the country. Mali's army wants to defeat the rebels by the end of April when elections are scheduled. But the government no longer controls the remote areas in the north.
"We've invested a lot into this region's economic development," said Mali's Foreign Minister Soumeyla Boubeye Maiga, "but it's also true that the state is not very present in those regions - and hasn't been for years."
Al-Qaida might be benefiting
It's not only the NMLA that's benefiting from this lack of state control. Mali's north is regarded as a place of shelter for drug traffickers, radical Salafis and members of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). The latter group has been kidnapping tourists in the region in recent years.
There's been speculation about the NMLA being linked to al-Qaeda, but so far there are no facts to back this up.
"Regional security is at stake now," said Diawara. "If the Sahara desert becomes a breeding ground for al-Qaeda, they would have a state or a whole region where they could operate at will. That's a great danger."
Mali's neighboring countries have to step in now and help mediate the conflict, Diawara added.
Author: Julia Hahn /sst
Editor: Susan Houlton / rm