Rebel group proclaims “independence of Azawad” following gains in northern Mali, as Algerian consulate staff abducted.
The Azawad region claimed by Tuareg rebels is a broad area of northern Mali.
Tuareg rebels from northern Mali have proclaimed the “independence of Azawad” in a statement on their website and through a spokesperson on France 24 television.
“We solemnly proclaim the independence of Azawad as from today,” Mossa Ag Attaher said on Friday, adding that the rebels would respect “the borders with other states”.
Mali has been gripped by instability, following a coup by army officers in the capital Bamako and advances by Tuareg fighters and other armed groups that have seen a string of northern towns fall under their control.
The MNLA statement on Friday stressed the group’s “firm commitment to create the conditions for lasting peace [and] to initiate the institutional foundations for a state based on a democratic constitution for an independent Azawad”.
Armed fighters stormed the Algerian consulate in northeastern Mali on Thursday, abducting seven diplomats amid fears that Al Qaeda-linked fighters are turning the country into a rogue state and fuelling a humanitarian crisis.
As the MNLA claimed success in its decades-old struggle to “liberate” their homeland, there were reports that Ansar Dine, an Islamist group which had also joined the fight against Malian government forces, had begun imposing Sharia law in some northern areas of Mali.
“The coup leaders were of the view that they would get more support from the people because of … the failure of the military establishment to cope with the situation,” said Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Bamako.
“But they suddenly found themselves in a strange situation – the coup leaders lost control of half of the country, and they’re now hoping for international support.”
The MNLA said that as a result of their capture of the Azawad, a broadly triangular area of desert in northern Mali, it was halting all military operations starting on midnight on Thursday and called on the international community to recognise its independence.
“We completely accept the role and responsibility that behoves us to secure this territory,” Ag Attaher said. “We have ended a very important fight, that of liberation… now the biggest task commences.”
But a Malian military source told the AFP news agency that Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly wielded more power in the north, with the backing of regional al-Qaeda fighters.
“From what we know, the MNLA is in charge of nothing at the moment … it is Iyad who is the strongest and he is with AQIM,” the source said, referring to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Algeria’s foreign ministry said an unidentified group had attacked its consulate in the northern town of Gao and kidnapped the consul and six staff members.
The kidnapping on Thursday was “deplorable,” Ag Attaher said, adding that his group had been against that action but finally went along with the move so as to spare lives.
Witnesses told AFP that raiders had hoisted the black Salafist flag that has been the emblem of rebels who had overrun Gao, Timbuktu and other northern towns.
Amnesty International warned on Thursday that Mali’s north faces a humanitarian catastrophe after rebels looted food and medicine supplies across an arid region already facing shortages.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies