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Mali's Tuareg rebels declare independence Mali rebels declare independence in north as fears grow over extremist links
(about 2 hours later)
Tuareg rebels who swept across the deserts of northern Mali in the aftermath of a coup in the country's capital have attempted to consolidate their power in the region, declaring an independent nation.Tuareg rebels who swept across the deserts of northern Mali in the aftermath of a coup in the country's capital have attempted to consolidate their power in the region, declaring an independent nation.
Insurgents from National Movement for the Independence of Azawad (NMLA)made the announcement on their website, claiming they were creating the new nation in line with the principles of international law and justice. Insurgents from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) made the announcement on their website, claiming they were creating the new nation in line with the principles of international law and justice.
"We, the people of the Azawad [desert region] proclaim the irrevocable independence of the state of the Azawad starting from this day, Friday 6 April 2012," the statement read."We, the people of the Azawad [desert region] proclaim the irrevocable independence of the state of the Azawad starting from this day, Friday 6 April 2012," the statement read.
The declaration drew immediate condemnation from the international community. The African Union has condemned it as "null and void", whilst France, the former colonial power, said it "means nothing for us". Delegates from the regional power ECOWAS who initially said they would negotiate with the rebels, are reportedly now working on plans for military intervention in northern Mali. The declaration drew immediate condemnation from the international community. The African Union condemned it as "null and void", while France, the former colonial power in the area, said it "means nothing for us".
Britain responded to the continuing turmoil by withdrawing staff from its embassy in capital Bamako, citing the "unstable and unpredictable situation". Delegates from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), who initially said they would negotiate with the rebels, were reportedly working on plans for military intervention in northern Mali.
Growing concern about the situation in northern Mali comes amidreports that the rebel fighters who last week took control of all the major towns in northern Mali included fighters from the extremist Islamist faction Ansar Dine and al-Qaida's North African branch, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Britain responded to the continuing turmoil by withdrawing staff from its embassy in the capital Bamako, citing the "unstable and unpredictable situation".
A source who fled the rebel-held town Gao said that extremists were heavily involved in the advance and were now targeting the Christian minority in northern towns. Growing concern about the situation comes amid reports that the rebel fighters, who last week took control of all the main towns in northern Mali, included people linked to the extremist Islamist faction Ansar Dine and al-Qaida's North African branch known as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
"The rebels have sacked the church in Gao, burning the contents whilst crying Allah Akhbar," the source told the Guardian. "At a rebel barricade outside Gao, the bodies of people who have been slaughtered were laid out on the ground," the source said. A source who fled the rebel-held town of Gao said that extremists were heavily involved in the advance and were now targeting the Christian minority in northern towns.
In a further report, which could not be verified, the Guardian has learned that the Christian prefect of the town of Bourem had also been killed along with his family. "The rebels have sacked the church in Gao, burning the contents whilst crying Allah Akhbar," the source told the Guardian. "At a rebel barricade outside Gao, the bodies of people who have been slaughtered were laid out on the ground."
In a further report, which could not be verified, the Guardian learned that the Christian prefect of the town of Bourem had also been killed along with his relatives.
"The prefect was slaughtered at a checkpoint along with his family," a source said. "Christians here are now living in real fear.""The prefect was slaughtered at a checkpoint along with his family," a source said. "Christians here are now living in real fear."
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had heard similar reports and was very concerned about the situation, although it could not confirm specific allegations about attacks on Christians.The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had heard similar reports and was very concerned about the situation, although it could not confirm specific allegations about attacks on Christians.
The rebellion in northern Mali dates back to the country's independence from the French, when ethnic Tuaregs were led to believe they might receive their own separate homeland in the Sahara desert.The rebellion in northern Mali dates back to the country's independence from the French, when ethnic Tuaregs were led to believe they might receive their own separate homeland in the Sahara desert.
In recent months the insurgency has been boosted by arms from Libya; frustration in the Malian army that the government had failed to equip it to fight the rebels helped trigger Mali's military coup, which toppled the civilian government on 21 March.In recent months the insurgency has been boosted by arms from Libya; frustration in the Malian army that the government had failed to equip it to fight the rebels helped trigger Mali's military coup, which toppled the civilian government on 21 March.
The NMLA, whose stated aim is the creation of a secularist homeland for the Tuareg people, has attracted some sympathy from foreign powers. The group cites 50 years of misrule by the country's southern-based administration and its distinct ethnic and cultural identity as reasons for the need for an independent state. It is led by a Tuareg senior commander who fought in the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's military. The NMLA, whose stated aim is the creation of a secularist homeland for the Tuareg people, has attracted some sympathy from foreign powers.
But there are continuing signs that NMLA control over northern Mali involves Ansar Dine and AQIM. On Thursday, residents in Gao confirmed that the Ansar Dine faction a group led by Algerian extremists who have operated a "kidnap economy" and have only tenuous links to the Tuareg cause stormed the Algerian consulate there, taking the consul and six other employees hostage. The group says there have been 50 years of misrule by the country's southern-based administration; this, and the people's distinct ethnic and cultural identity, are reasons for the need for an independent state.
The Guardian's source said that all three organisations were declaring their presence in Gao, along with Nigerian terrorist organisation Boko Haram. The NMLA is led by a Tuareg senior commander who fought in the military for the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
"There are four distinct flags flying there the National Movement for the Independence of Azawad (NMLA), Boko Haram the Nigerian Islamist Group, Ansar Dine the Islamic militant group, and Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb," he said. But there are continuing signs that NMLA control over northern Mali involves Ansar Dine and AQIM.
Another resident told the Associated Press that control of the city was in the hands of Islamist fighters. "We barely see the NMLA. The people we see are the Salafis. I can't tell which group they are exactly, but we know they are the Islamists because of their beards. They are the people in control of Gao." On Thursday, residents in Gao confirmed that the Ansar Dine faction a group led by Algerian extremists who have operated a "kidnap economy" and have only tenuous links to the Tuareg cause stormed the Algerian consulat, taking the consul and six other employees hostage.
Since the beginning of the uprising, more than 200,000 people have fled the north of Mali with an estimated 100,000 crossing to the neighbouring countries of Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso all of which are already struggling with a food crisis caused by drought. A source said that all three organisations were declaring their presence in Gao, along with the Nigerian terrorist organisation Boko Haram.
Human rights group Amnesty international warned that without urgent intervention the region is on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster amidst the looting of hospitals and disruption of electricity and water and dwindling food supplies, and described abuses by rebel fighters including abductions and rapes in the towns of Gao and Menaka. "There are four distinct flags flying there the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist group, Ansar Dine, and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb," he said.
"Women and girls particularly are too terrified to leave their homes. People are describing an atmosphere of near total lawlessness," said Amnesty West Africa researcher Gaëtan Mootoo. Another resident told Associated Press that control of the city was in the hands of Islamist fighters. "We barely see the NMLA. The people we see are the Salafis. I can't tell which group they are exactly, but we know they are the Islamists because of their beards. They are the people in control of Gao."
Since the beginning of the uprising, more than 200,000 people have fled the north of Mali, an estimated 100,000 crossing into Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, all of which are already struggling with a food crisis caused by drought.
Amnesty International warned that without urgent intervention the region would be on the brink of a humanitarian disaster amid the looting of hospitals, and disruption of electricity and water, and dwindling food supplies.
Abuses by rebel fighters reportedly included abductions and rapes in Gao and the town of Menaka, the human rights group said.
Gaëtan Mootoo, Amnesty's West Africa researcher, said: "Women and girls particularly are too terrified to leave their homes. People are describing an atmosphere of near total lawlessness.
"All the food and medicine stored by major aid agencies has been looted and most of the aid workers have fled. The population is at imminent risk of severe food and medical shortages that could lead to many casualties especially among women and children who are less able to fend for themselves.""All the food and medicine stored by major aid agencies has been looted and most of the aid workers have fled. The population is at imminent risk of severe food and medical shortages that could lead to many casualties especially among women and children who are less able to fend for themselves."
"The fighters do not have a clear agenda. Why are they sacking the towns they are occupying, to the point where they have cut off the supply of water to Timbuktu, and the hospitals in the towns? Is their goal simply to instill total chaos here? A source said: "The fighters do not have a clear agenda. Why are they sacking the towns they are occupying to the point where they have cut off the supply of water to Timbuktu, and the hospitals in the towns? Is their goal simply to instil total chaos here? We are so, so afraid."
We are so, so afraid," the Guardian's source said.