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Malians Protest Rebel Takeover of North

People in the Malian capital, Bamako, marched to protest the takeover of the north by Tuareg rebels and Islamic militants.
People in the Malian capital, Bamako, marched to protest the takeover of the north by Tuareg rebels and Islamic militants.

Thousands of Malians marched in the streets of Bamako on Tuesday, calling for the "liberation" of northern regions taken over by Tuareg separatists and Islamic militants.

Tuareg rebels, long seeking autonomy, have declared independence, but the territory they claim is occupied by several different groups - including Islamist militants who don't share their vision.

But for many Malians they are all the same: armed criminals who must go.

Men and women of all ages walked along a main thoroughfare in Bamako chanting, ‘Liberate Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu’ - the three regions in northern Mali taken over last week by armed Tuareg separatists and Islamic militants

The Tuareg rebels have now declared independence for a state they call "Azawad." Many Malians, the country's neighbors, and the international community immediately responded that the claim is baseless.

But a new state of Azawad is not the goal of all the groups currently occupying the north. The Islamic group Ansar Dine says it envisions one united Mali, under Islamic law.

A man just back from Gao, where he and his family were holed up in their home for days while armed groups ransacked the city, said it’s clearly the Islamists who control many parts of the northern garrison town.

Analysts say the Islamic militants, who fought alongside the Tuareg Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, now pose a problem for the separatists now seeking legitimacy.

Yvan Guichaoua, lecturer at the University of East Anglia, has extensively researched Tuareg movements in Niger and Mali. He talked about the influence of Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghali and how this stands as a challenge for the MNLA.

"The reason why they don’t confront Ansar Dine militarily right now is that basically Iyad is a Tuareg leader and they want to avoid at all costs an intra-Tuareg confrontation. Basically that could mean self-destruction for them because Iyad is still very, very powerful I think in the Tuareg community. And you have family members on both sides - people in the MNLA have brothers in Ansar Dine," Guichaoua said.

For many Malians the only answer is to rout out all groups occupying the north. A man at the march held up a sign that read: MNLA is a terrorist movement.

Malick Alhousseini Maïga, president of the association of people from the north that led Tuesday’s march, said while there are clear distinctions among the groups in the north, in this latest rebellion MNLA was helped along in its assault by Islamist groups.

But, he says, to say that we are going to go after Ansar Dine and other Islamic groups and leave MNLA be - no, that is not a solution. They are all the same. He says MNLA is a minority of a minority - an organization that is in collusion with terrorist groups.

For one Tuareg member of the northerners’ group, Zeidan Sidi Lamine, there are three main forces threatening the north today and strategies for tackling them require a profound understanding of the region.

He says the north is threatened by drug traffickers Islamic militants and the separatist MNLA. The first two phenomena are more complicated, he says, and require a regional and international response. He says he has been encouraged by recent talks with officials of the regional bloc ECOWAS.

In Bamako all eyes are on the ECOWAS-led process for transferring power from the junta to a transitional civilian government. The head of parliament, Dioncounda Traoré, is expected to be sworn in on Thursday.

While the coup d’état triggered debates about many ills in Malian society and politics, Malians point to the crisis in the north as the most urgent task for whoever leads the country.