OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — A secular rebel group that has long sought independence in northern Mali now has appointed its own administrator to govern the region of Kidal, a move that shows its growing strength after a French-led military operation forced its rivals into the desert.
The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, announced late Wednesday that Mohamed Aly Ag Al Bessati would serve as the civil administrator for Kidal.
"Today our priority is to protect people and property," said NMLA representative Moussa Ag Assarid. "These people need an administration to better lead activities and regain daily life."
Since the French-led operation largely ousted radical Islamic fighters from the northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, the Malian military has helped secure the first two cities.
Malian soldiers, though, have not been welcomed in Kidal, where the secular rebels accuse the Malian troops of committing reprisals against the lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs.
"We can't entrust our destiny to any army that executes our families," Assarid said.
The Tuareg separatists who make up the NMLA have long sought independence from Mali, and their latest rebellion last year triggered a March coup in the distant capital.
In the aftermath, the Tuaregs and Islamic extremists had both made rapid advances across northern Mali and the poorly armed Malian soldiers fled.
For several months, the Islamic extremists controlling northern Mali coexisted with the secular Tuareg rebels who want their own state.
The black flag of the extremists fluttered alongside the multi-colored one of the secular rebels, each occupying different areas of the towns.
In late May 2012, the two sides attempted to sign a deal, agreeing to create an independent Islamic state called Azawad.
The agreement between the Tuareg rebels and the extremists seemed doomed from the start. It fell apart days later. By June, the Islamic extremists had chased the secular rebels out of northern Mali's main cities.
However, a French-led military operation launched in mid-January forced the radical Islamists to flee northern Mali's major towns. France has said it ultimately intends to hand over control for the mission to Malian and other African forces, raising questions about how Kidal would be secured.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has proposed a U.N. peacekeeping force for Mali with 11,200 troops working alongside a non-U.N. force that would conduct major combat and counter-terrorism operations against Islamic extremists.