A hardline Tuareg rebel faction in Mali is working with ethnic Tuareg fighters who recently returned from Libya after fighting for ousted strongman Moammar Gadhafi, and is organizing for a possible rebellion against Mali's government, the spokesman for the rebel group said Tuesday.
Hama Ag Sid'Ahmed, the spokesman for the North of Mali Tuareg Movement, told The Associated Press by satellite phone from an undisclosed location that hundreds of Tuaregs who had been fighting for Gadhafi had made their way back to Mali and are now in talks with his group.
"We are all here together and there are a lot of discussions going on about a common position," Ag Sid'Ahmed said. "We are preparing ourselves both on a political and a military level."
Gadhafi counted the Tuaregs among his most loyal supporters and he created an entire battalion led exclusively by Tuaregs, who come from the nations at the feet of the Sahara desert including Libya, Niger, Mali and Chad. Since his fall they have streamed across the border into Mali as well as neighboring Niger, countries just south of Libya that the Tuaregs call home and whose artificial borders were created in colonial times.
When Gadhafi's son and three of his generals recently fled to Niger, it was Tuaregs who arranged the convoy and drove the cars.
Niger and Mali have voiced concerns over the influx of the armed Tuareg fighters. Both countries battled Tuareg-led insurgencies in the 1990s, and Mali faced a rebellion led by Ag Sid'Ahmed's group which flared in 2006 and continued sporadically through 2009.
In December 2008, the group carried out a major attack on a Malian military installation in the town of Napala, five months after other rebel groups had signed a peace deal.
The Tuaregs have long complained that Mali's central government _ which is dominated by ethnic groups from the country's south _ has ignored the nation's impoverished north.
Successive peace deals signed with the Tuaregs _ including several that were mediated by Gadhafi himself _ were intended to give a greater share of the nation's resources to the blue-turbaned nomads. But some factions including Ag Sid'Ahmed's have complained that the government did not follow through on its promises.
Ag Sid'Ahmed said he would not reveal where he was exactly, saying only that he was in the north of Mali. Local press reports have said that the Tuareg fighters from Libya are living in the desert between the towns of Menaka and Kidal.
Mali's Foreign Minister, Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, refused to comment on Ag Sid'Ahmed's claims, but said the government would be sending the interior minister to the north of the country next week to evaluate the situation and see how best it could help settle peacefully the Tuareg fighters recently returned from Libya.
Ag Sid'Ahmed said he was also in discussions with a new Tuareg faction, the National Movement for Azawad, which recently wrote to the Malian government threatening military action if the government did not open negotiations with the group before Nov. 5.