By Bakari Guèye
Thousands of Touareg refugees fleeing clashes in northern Mali entered Mauritania in recent days, escaping the fighting between the Malian army and Touareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA).
“Since January 28th, a lot of Touareg refugees have moved in here. Most of them have arrived on vehicles,” said Sheikh Ould Ahmed, a teacher in the border town of Fassala. “Apparently the first few to arrive were relatives of the rebels fighting the Malian army. And on February 1st, 23 families arrived from the Adres area.”
Tinhinan, a refugee who managed to reach Mauritania on January 29th, said, “We’ve seen death on our doorstep. Our village was attacked and plundered by the army. There were 25 of us, women and children. A car took us close to Bassiknou, and then we walked across the desert for a day before reaching Mauritania. Thank God we’re all safe and sound.”
“Our village was attacked in broad daylight,” Tinhinan continued. “Our fighters managed to drive the attackers back, but unfortunately the fighting was fierce and people were killed. So we had to leave there and then; we didn’t know when the soldiers would be back. They’re wicked, and don’t make any distinction between men and women.”
The refugees continue to arrive in Mauritania. On February 1st, a sizeable contingent arrived in Adel Bagrou from Bamako. At the moment, there are nearly 3,000 refugees according to estimates from humanitarian organisations.
A Mauritanian government source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that authorities were ready to deal with the humanitarian situation.
Da Hamidoun, a teacher working with the Italian NGO Terre Solidali, told Magharebia that the UN has yet to respond to the emerging refugee crisis in Hodh Chargui.
“The UNHCR is reluctant to dispatch its personnel to the area, for safety reasons, and is planning to make arrangements with local NGOs to do the work on the ground,” Hamidoun explained. “Up until now the organisation has done nothing apart from carry out an evaluative study, and the situation facing the refugees is very bad. Those with at least some resources have rented houses.”
This crisis is beginning to impact a number of countries in the sub-region. According to Chérif Ould Ali, a terrorism expert, “The Touareg rebels have a considerable arsenal, backed up by huge determination. It’s not by chance that they’re making their mark. The Malian army has a lot on its plate, and people are already talking about the Senegalese army coming to fight alongside it.”
“On the Mauritanian side, people seem to have more sympathy for the MNLA, which could be a good ally in the fight against AQIM,” Ould Ali added.
But the Malian government has accused Touareg rebels of working with the terror group. “Members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Touareg rebels joined forces to attack Aguelhoc, a town in the northeast of Mali, which had already been targeted the previous week by the rebels,” the government claimed January 27th.
Ould Ali said the Malian accusation was the first official assertion of a link between the MNLA and AQIM. However, Mauritanian officials were more cautious about the presence of jihadists in the attack in Aguelhoc.
While at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Mauritanian Foreign Minister Hamadi Ould Hamadi advised observers to avoid “getting mixed up about any possible links between the Touareg rebels and AQIM”.
“Firstly, the Touaregs are an ethnic community, which is not the case with the terrorists,” the foreign minister said. “The Touaregs in Mali are in their home area, which is not the case with the terrorists. The Touaregs have demands in terms of their identity, which is not the case with the terrorists. The Touaregs have never attacked a foreign country, which again is not the case with the terrorists. So, in my view, we mustn’t lump them together.”