By Jemal Oumar
Touareg rebels in northern Mali declared independence on Friday (April 6th), announcing their intention to form the democratic state of Azawad.
“We solemnly proclaim the independence of Azawad as from today,” Mossa Ag Attaher, a spokesman for Mali’s National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), said on France 24 television, confirming a statement on the group’s website.
Algeria, France, the African Union and the European Union all rejected the move, according to AFP. Since the start of the Touareg rebellion in January, the MNLA has seized much of northern Mali together with Islamist rebels, including the provinces of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The MNLA captured Timbuktu April 2nd, but they were shoved aside by Islamist rebels from Ansar al-Din, a group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Late on Friday, an Ansar al-Din leader came out against independence for Azawad.
“Our war is a holy war. It’s a legal war in the name of Islam. We are against rebellions. We are against independence. We are against revolutions not in the name of Islam,” Omar Hamaha said in a video obtained by AFP.
Locals have expressed fear over the repercussions of time-honoured Timbuktu falling into the hands of Ansar al-Din. Timbuktu, formerly an icon of faith tolerance and a crossing point for civilisations and faiths throughout the ages, is now held hostage by a group of Islamic hardliners who are seeking to implement a rigid version of the Sharia, tailored after the Taliban in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, AQIM leaders Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka “Laaouar”), Abou Zeid, and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam attended a meeting with the city’s religious leaders and Iyad Ag Ghaly, the head of Ansar al-Din.
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In a telephone interview with Magharebia, Dawood Ag Mohamad, imam of the Belferandi Mosque in Timbuktu, said that “Ansar al-Din and AQIM activists entered the city and actually started enforcing the Islamic Sharia in the city.”
“They held a number of meetings with Imams of mosques, which I personally attended. They asked us to aid them in enforcing the Sharia by urging people in sermons to abide by the teachings of the Sharia. They also held several meetings with the grassroots and explained their strategy in implementing the Sharia, by enforcing Hodoud (i.e. penalties), such as cutting off thieves’ hands, lashing adulterers and booze drinkers, and punishing those who commit religious offenses,” the imam added.
Magharebia also phoned Al-Hassan Cissé, a public transport driver who lives in Timbuktu. He said residents were “very much intimidated by the new measures announced by Ansar al-Din activists, because they are not used to implementing the Sharia in their day-to-day lives”.
He said the hard-line Islamists had threatened to kill or lash those who violated their orders. “I’m calling you now from Timbuktu suburbs,” Cissé added in a shaken voice, “because I’ve decided to escape the city toward the south. I left behind many people who share the same feeling of fear from the unknown.”
The situation in Timbuktu has triggered concerns on the international scene, with fears the city could become a nucleus of an Islamic emirate within the Azawad region and a potential source of violent extremists.
UNESCO has also expressed its deep concern over the cultural heritage in Timbuktu, which may be jeopardised by Islamic groups. UNESCO chief Irina Bokova was quoted by Afrik as saying she was “deeply concerned that the conflict in northern Mali and the collapse of the two cities of Gao and Timbuktu would come to have its repercussions on the global cultural heritage in those two cities, which includes three mosques and 16 tombs in Timbuktu, as well as the tomb of King Askia in Gao.”
Other Islamist factions are also present in northern Mali. Mauritania’s Al-Akhbar reported Tuesday that Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou, the leader of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), declared that his group was in control of Gao and that they lost a number of their men fighting against what he called “the army of infidels”.
Seven Algerian diplomats were kidnapped from their consulate in Gao on Thursday and taken to an unknown location.
Ould Mohamed Kheirou said his movement comprised many Mauritanians, Nigeriens, and Azwadians, adding that they were the first to break into Gao. Ould Mohamed Kheirou is a Mauritanian Salafist, who escaped from a Mauritanian prison several years ago and joined AQIM before later breaking away and founding his own jihadist group.