By Jemal Oumar
The on-going conflict between the Malian government and Touareg rebels may impede Sahel efforts to counter al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), security analysts fear.
In the latest bout of fighting, Mali’s army on Thursday (February 9th) launched airstrikes to halt the advance of Touareg rebels. The attack came a week after a Malian delegation led by Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga and members of the Touaregs’ 23 May Democratic Alliance for Change sat down for talks in Algiers.
The negotiations ended with “an urgent appeal to stop the fighting and for dialogue and consultation to prevail”, according to Algeria’s El Khabar.
While Maïga reaffirmed on February 7th his government’s commitment to “fight against terrorist groups and trans-national crime”, the issue is a growing concern for Mali’s neighbours and beyond.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton expressed “great interest in providing security, stability and democracy in the Sahel region in addition to the promotion of peace so as to ensure Malian territorial integrity”, Journal du Mali quoted a statement by her spokesman.
Ashton called on parties to “cease armed confrontation as soon as possible and engage in constructive dialogue”, the same source added.
“In order to achieve peace, there must be a ceasefire immediately so that we can create the optimal environment for a dialogue and launch activities achieving security and development,” commented Ivor Richard Fung, Director of the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe struck a similar note. “Resorting to armed confrontation is no longer acceptable in a democratic system, as is the case in Mali, and it is necessary to return to negotiations between the Malian government and all parties concerned,” AFP quoted him as saying on Tuesday (February 7th).
For her part, US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland condemned “the attacks by armed groups against a number of northern towns”.
“These actions, taken by groups who purport to defend the rights of Malians, instead threaten the well-being of all Malian citizens. We call for a resumption of dialogue toward a peaceful resolution to the on-going conflict,” she told reporters in Washington DC on February 2nd.
Meanwhile, Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, responsible for human rights and relations with international organisations in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA), denied in an interview with Magharebia “any relationship to al-Qaeda in the region”. He also denied that his movement obtained any Libyan arms.
“But we are not concerned with a call to stop fighting made by the interlocutors in Algeria because the May 23rd Alliance, which is engaged in a dialogue on behalf of the Touareg, does not represent the people of Azaouad,” he said. “And this position does not mean our rejection of dialogue at all, rather we are open and ready for dialogue, but on condition that it leads to a solution that can be relied upon.”
MNLA Secretary-General Belal Ag Sharif shared the view. He told El Khabar, “We are ready for negotiations leading to the end of the conflict that devastated the region and is behind the existence of extremist groups and very complex smuggling networks, due to the absence of Azaouads running their region. The conflict destroyed stability and spread to neighbouring countries.”
“We do not have any links to al-Qaeda,” he said. “Al-Qaeda is an organisation foreign to us in terms of behaviour and religious interpretation of the texts. Personally, I have not seen something called al-Qaeda in the Azaouad region.”
“As for Libyan arms, the stores opened with the fall of Kadhafi, as those who wanted to take them took them, and those who wanted to buy them bought them,” he continued. “But we did not import any arms, nor do we have the money to buy them at all.”