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Tuareg Unrest Escalates in Mali

Military leaders in Mali say the national army is ready to retaliate after Tuareg rebels carried out a deadly ambush on Sunday. Government officials say the rebels are fighting to take control of the region's illegal and lucrative drug trade. But some analysts say the conflict is political and say the government has failed to fulfill promises made in a peace deal last year. Selah Hennessy reports from the VOA West Africa bureau in Dakar.

Colonel Abdoulaye Coulibaly, a spokesman for Mali's national army, says seven Tuareg fighters and one army soldier were killed in Sunday's ambush. He says it is the army's job to protect the civilian population, and the troops are in position to retaliate against any more attacks by Tuareg fighters.

Malian officials say Tuareg rebels, lead by renegade leader Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, ambushed an army convoy on its way to reinforce a garrison in the northeast town Tin-Zaouatene.

Bahanga has not claimed responsibility for the ambush.

Amadou Maiga, a journalist based in Mali's capital, Bamako, says Bahanga, who refused to sign the peace deal with the government last July, is fighting without the support of other Tuaregs.

"He is the only one who started this fighting," he said. "This is not rebels, this is terrorists. He is a terrorist now."

He says Bahanga and his men are fighting to take control of the region only for their own financial gain.

"They do not want to be under the public laws," he said. "They want to stay free in this place to do their smuggling, that is all."

But Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies analyst David Zounmnou says Sunday's ambush was politically motivated.

He says Tuaregs are taking up arms because the government has failed to fulfil its promises, including improved development in northern parts of the country and the fair management of natural resources.

"The truce has been broken certainly because the government has not respected the terms of the agreement," he said.

He adds that the American presence in Mali is serving to aggravate the situation.

Mali receives military and financial support from the multi-million-dollar U.S. Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative. Both governments say militant religious extremists are being trained for combat in the desert.

"The involvement of America may externalise what could be perceived as an internal conflict, [a] minor conflict [and result in it] actually escalating and creating havoc within the region," Zounmnou said.

He says it is important Mali's government deals with the situation through political change, rather than looking to the United States for military support.

"Hiding behind the shade of America to come to terms with a rebellion in the region will not bring sustainable results," he added.

Tuareg fighters in Mali and neighboring Algeria and Niger have been carrying out rebellions since the 1990s, calling for economic aid for the deeply poor Sahel region.