DAKAR, Senegal - Tuareg rebels in northern Mali are looking to reconcile with an angry local population. Residents there say rebels know they will have to co-exist with the people whether the future brings a negotiated solution or military intervention.
Leaders of the Tuareg separatist group Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, met Friday with youths in Gao to ask forgiveness for the difficulties people have faced since armed groups seized northern Mali in late March.
Days earlier MNLA leaders got on local radio in Gao, asking the people's forgiveness, appealing in particular to the majority Songhaï population.
MNLA and the Islamist militant groups fighting alongside them looted hospitals, banks and houses as they took northern Mali, which is home to several ethnic groups.
Since the takeover, food, water and electricity are scarce. Traders are regularly subject to extortion by the armed groups now claiming authority. And Islamist militants who swept into Mali with MNLA have carried out harsh punishments purportedly in adherence to the strict interpretation of Sharia they want to impose across the country.
As regional and international leaders explore military and non-military solutions for northern Mali, MNLA is reaching out to both mediators and the local population.
While efforts at negotiations continue, the armed groups in the north are bracing for a possible military offensive against them. In a recent communiqué, MNLA's transitional government, named earlier this month, said any calls for military intervention are "irresponsible."
In their meeting with youths in Gao, MNLA members wanted to know the young men’s views of possible military action by the regional bloc ECOWAS, and whose side they would they be on.
Malians in Gao say the situation has gotten away from MNLA. The Tuareg separatists said as much in their recent radio appeal.
Local people who spoke with VOA did not want their names used, fearing trouble with a mix of fighters they say carry arms everywhere, from the market to the mosque.
A father of nine in Gao recounted MNLA’s radio message. "They told us they regret what has happened," he said. "They said they never thought things would reach this point; they thought they would just carry out their revolution, but now they are trapped."
Another resident of Gao said he is not surprised by MNLA’s pleas to the local population.
"I knew they would end up turning to the people, asking for their forgiveness,” he said. “It’s all about trying to win the people over as everyone knows the current situation cannot last." He added, "These are sons of Gao. It is their very own families who have suffered. MNLA knows they have to live with the people here, come what may."
As for MNLA’s appeal for forgiveness, he said, "When they liberate the north for good, and stop coming back and destroying all we have, we might pardon them."
The father in Gao said the majority is hostage to a heavily armed minority. "The damage has been incalculable. We are devastated and our souls have been ripped apart," he said.
His is one of countless families that have been broken up by the unrest. "Some of my children are in the capital, Bamako, others in Niger. Can you imagine what that does to a family of little means? So you see why I and most of the people here are not ready to collaborate with MNLA," he said.