By Jemal Oumar
Touareg fighters captured the city of Timbuktu on Saturday (April 1st), the last town under Malian government control in the northern region of Azaouad.
The fall of Timbuktu threatens to split Mali into two, with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA) also controlling the regions of Gao, Kidal, areas claimed by Touareg rebels seeking an independent state.
“We are now in full control of the Azaouad territory, with its three cities, after its liberation from Malian army control,” said MNLA fighter Mouhi Ag Boulkhey, known as “Kabo”, the officer in now in charge of Timbuktu airport.
“We seized a lot of heavy weapons and will proceed to form a council for direct governance of daily organisation of the lives of residents through the modality of democracy,” Ag Boulkhey told Magharebia. “We reject any dialogue with the Malian authorities.”
The Touareg victory is just the latest woe for coup leaders in Bamako, who on Sunday pledged to restore Mali’s 1992 constitution under the threat of sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
ECOWAS had given the insurrectionists 72 hours to restore legitimacy or face tough diplomacy in the form of freezing their assets, preventing them from traveling to West African countries, suspending economic aid, as well as closing their borders to land-locked Mali. The bloc had also threatened military action, putting a peacekeeping force on alert.
West African states are scheduled to meet in Dakar on Monday to make a decision on whether to close their borders to Mali and cut it off from the regional central bank.
As the Touaregs advanced, coup leader Amadou Sanogo appealed to the international community to maintain Mali territorial unity.
“Our army needs help from the friends of Mali to save the civilian population and to maintain Mali’s territorial integrity,” Sanogo said.
At the same time, he expressed readiness to make new concessions to ECOWAS, saying: “The Military Council recognises the position of ECOWAS, but we urge them to reconsider the plight of landlocked Mali. We are ready for possible solutions.”
But the leaders of West African states have made any assistance contingent on the return of legitimacy.
“ECOWAS has a military force 2,000 men strong, and we have equipment,” said Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, who currently holds the ECOWAS presidency. “We asked the international community to support us and support Mali, where if it restored legitimacy and the armed movements recognised there is regional and international mobilisation, they would leave Kidal immediately.”
“We must preserve the territorial integrity of Mali, whatever the price,” Ouattara added. “We must succeed because if Mali divides and breaks up, it would be a bad example.”
In the same vein, the Burkinabe presidency announced that a Mali military delegation arrived in Ouagadougou on Saturday to meet with President Blaise Compaore, chosen by ECOWAS as an intermediary in the Malian crisis.
Meanwhile, Touaregs fighting under the MNLA banner claimed to have taken a number of Malian soldiers prisoner in their latest push. “Touareg fighters also managed to seize a large number of weapons and heavy artillery,” according to Mohamed al-Amin Ould Ahmed, MNLA Assistant Secretary-General.
The cities of Gao and Kidal have been under Touareg control since Saturday (March 31st). MNLA fighter Mohamed Ag Chiteh, known as Kibo, told Magharebia, “The situation now in Kidal is under the joint control of the Harakat Ansar al-Din, whose influence extends over the western and northern sides, while MNLA controls the eastern and southern sides, and organisation of people’s lives will begin soon to return them to normal.”
The fighter added he was unaware of any power sharing arrangement between the Islamist group and the more secular MNLA.
Journalist Osman Ag Mohamed Osman told Magharebia that it was premature to discuss any future scenario regarding Azaouad. “I personally do not expect there to be confrontations or differences between Harakat Ansar al-Din, which calls for Islamic law, and the MNLA, because their differences mainly depend on the tribal dimension and not the dogmatic dimension.”
Regarding the alleged connection between Harakat Ansar al-Din and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Osman stated that “the alliance between them and al-Qaeda may have strategic objectives at this time only and will end in the near future.”