Street protests by youths in northern Mali this week underscored the exasperation of a people who have now lived at the mercy of armed groups for three months. The Malian interim government has praised the youths’ "courage" and "resilience", and affirmed, once again, that it will do everything it can to push out what it calls terrorists and criminals.
Residents of Gao took to the streets Tuesday after the death of a local official allegedly killed by armed groups now controlling the region.
The government issued a communiqué on Wednesday praising Gao residents for their “exemplary resilience” in the face of humiliation, criminality and gratuitous violence.
Since late March, the people of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal have lived under the control of armed Tuareg separatist rebels and Islamic militants. Residents of the north tell VOA they feel abandoned by their government and that, despite the danger, people are likely to rise up again and again.
Hamadoun Touré is Mali’s communications minister and government spokesperson.
“They have confronted the humiliation and repression imposed by the occupiers," he said. " The armed groups occupying the north have now seen in these youths one facet of the Malian people’s resistance.”
He says it is obvious that it will take more than unarmed citizens to drive out what he calls terrorists and criminals. He notes the Malian government continues to prefer a negotiated solution. But, if this does not work, Mali will turn to military force.
Touré says he understands the people’s exasperation.
“We haven’t forgotten them. We haven’t abandoned them and we will not abandon them," he says. "We understand their frustration and, beyond that, we share their frustration. Unfortunately it takes time to push out these armed groups. We are working flat out, day and night. This is what we are doing.”
Mediators with the regional bloc ECOWAS are talking with representatives of the Tuareg separatist group -- the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad or MNLA - and the Islamic militant group Ansar Dine, to explore options for a negotiated solution. At the same time regional leaders are preparing troops and asking for formal United Nations backing for an intervention in northern Mali.
The Islamic militant groups who fought alongside MNLA in seizing northern Mali have since clashed with the rebels - including deadly fighting in Gao on Wednesday - and have the upper hand in many areas.