By David Lewis and Adama Diarra
DAKAR/KIDAL, Mali (Reuters) - Equipped with heavy weapons from Muammar Gaddafi's looted arsenals, the Tuareg-led rebels who assaulted the town of Aguelhoc in northern Mali last month overwhelmed the remote garrison.
Fighters hardened by combat in Libya swelled the ranks of the desert insurgents who in their first attack on January 18 surrounded the local army base with machinegun-mounted four-wheel drive vehicles. They destroyed army communications, local cellphone towers and laid down a barrage of mortar fire.
After cutting off water supplies and ambushing resupply convoys, they came back a week later to overrun the base.
"They had the advantage of being more numerous, being better armed and having better logistics, including satellite phones," a Malian government soldier who took part in the fighting told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"It is the sad truth," he added.
As the anniversary of the February 17 uprising against Gaddafi approaches, Mali and other states to the south are paying a price for the revolution by Western-backed insurgents in Libya.
The flood of weapons and fighters out of Libya has now added to an arc of insecurity across West Africa, stretching from Boko Haram Islamists behind a spate of lethal bombings in Nigeria to al Qaeda allies who have targeted Westerners and armed forces in the Sahel all the way to Mauritania in the north.
Mali is no stranger to rebellions - this is the fourth led by the Tuareg nomads of the north since independence from France in 1960. The last ended only in 2008.
But this time the turbaned rebels' arsenal includes SA-7, SA-24 and Milan portable missile systems, according to the Malian soldier who faced them.
And rather than just melting back into the desert after an attack, the new firepower has emboldened them to take on the army on three fronts and resist helicopter gunships.
A Malian defense ministry official, who also asked not to be named, said the rebels were equipped "just like Libya's army", with heavy machine guns on four-wheel drive vehicles, anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets as well as light weapons.
"In other rebellions, they have been under-equipped," said Jeremy Keenan, a Sahara expert who has long studied the Tuareg.
"These guys back from Libya have heavier arms and they know how to use them," he said of the MNLA, or National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
This is the name the rebels give to the homeland they would like to carve out of three regions in Mali's north.
It is the latest security challenge for a Malian government 1,500 km (900 miles) away in Bamako, which has already failed to stop allies of al Qaeda implanting themselves on parts of its remote north and using it as a base to hold Western hostages.
Since the fighting in Mali erupted in mid-January, dozens have been reported killed on both sides and at least 60,000 civilians have fled their homes in a Sahel region already facing a humanitarian crisis from the latest of its recurrent droughts.
Anti-terrorism training and cooperation between the Malian government and key allies like the United States and Algeria have been disrupted. The fighting could also force Mali to postpone a planned April 29 election.
Bamako accuses the MNLA of joining forces with al Qaeda's North African wing, AQIM, in the Aguelhoc attack. Several soldiers involved said they faced bearded fighters in Afghan-style dress. One resident who helped bury the dead said more than 115 soldiers were killed, many with their hands bound.
The MNLA rejects the charges, accusing the government of seeking to discredit it and scare the West.
While decades of frustrations over unfulfilled peace deals and underdevelopment simmer in Mali's north, the trigger for the emergence of the MNLA, a force estimated by diplomats and analysts to be 1,000-strong, was the fallout from Libya's war.
Three months after Gaddafi's death, Libya's new leaders are still struggling to impose their authority on the country and do not have full control of their borders that have been leaking arms and fighters into neighboring states to the south.
As Gaddafi's regime collapsed, hundreds of armed Malian Tuareg recruited into his army over the years started returning home, where job prospects are bleak and the national government holds little sway.
Some handed their weapons back to the Malian authorities and have since become civilians or joined the army. Others didn't.
In October, these fighters gathered in the oasis settlement of Zakak in hills by the border with Algeria. They were joined by career rebels, Malian army deserters and young, internet-savvy activists in a conclave that gave birth to the MNLA.
Some of those who returned from Libya were recently hired guns. But many, like Colonel Mahamed Ag Najim who is now the MNLA's top military commander, are battle-hardened veterans who served in Gaddafi's ranks for years.
They were joined by men who fought under late rebel leader Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, who died in a car crash last year just as he was laying the groundwork for the rebellion, and by members of the homegrown youth-led MNA movement that emerged in 2010.
"This year we have all the generations together," senior France-based MNLA official Hama Ag Sid'Ahmed said by phone.
Adding to Bamako's woes, Tuareg soldiers who were integrated into the Malian army after the last rebellion and have an intimate knowledge of the local terrain have deserted in their droves, Malian officials say.
As the well-armed newcomers drifted home late last year, the government dispatched delegations to try and head off trouble. The group that rejected government appeals to hand over weapons went on to form the rebellion's core.
A Reuters journalist who visited one of the groups in Mali that decided to hand over their weapons saw four-wheel drives mounted with 14.5 mm machineguns and multiple rocket launchers.
"They feel strong because they have the weapons and are ready to use them," said El Hadj Baba Haidara, parliament deputy for the northern town of Timbuktu, who took part in the talks.
"When we heard their tone and saw them planting the (Azawad) flag, we suggested (Bamako) should act quickly to open talks but also make military preparations ... But the government wasn't quick enough," Haidara added.
AMBITIOUS BID FOR HOMELAND
Tuareg nomads who roam the vast desert spaces between Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso have resisted central authority since colonial times. But previous rebellions have sought more local autonomy and integration of Tuareg fighters into the army rather than outright independence for Azawad.
Capturing the ambitious new mood of the insurgency and citing last year's creation of South Sudan, Africa's newest state, the pro-Tuareg website www.toumastpress.com declared in a December editorial that is was "now or never".
The rusty old weapons that let down Kaocene Ag Gedda, a hero in the anti-French colonial struggle in the early 20th century, had been replaced by the Grad rocket launchers and other heavy weapons now in desert camps, the editorial said.
The movement has a slick PR machine, with a regularly updated website and easily contactable Europe-based spokesmen.
Mali has rejected any talk of an independent state. The rebels, who represent some, but not all of the Tuareg, let alone other communities in the north, have said they will target towns, one by one, until they have created their northern homeland in the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
Yet prospects of broader support for their cause appear dim. Libya's new rulers, busy with their own problems, are unlikely to mimic Gaddafi's penchant for meddling in Tuareg affairs.
Algeria, which retains a strong influence to its south, is looking to improve cooperation with Mali, especially in the fight against local al Qaeda cells. Its state oil company Sonatrach also has interests in Mali's section of the Taoudeni Basin, in the north, though exploration has not begun.
Algerian officials have confirmed they are hosting talks between Mali's government and some Tuareg leaders. But the MNLA has denied sending any representatives to the meetings and shown no sign of listening to international appeals for a ceasefire.
Niger's Tuareg, who have in the past sometimes linked up with those in Mali, appear unlikely to revolt. They are better represented in the central government and fewer Nigerien Tuareg returning from Libya were able to keep hold of their weapons.
"Ultimately, they are surrounded by countries who won't support any independence movement so the best they can hope for is greater autonomy and a decent pay package for the leaders," said one diplomat who is following the conflict closely.
DISTRACTS FROM ANTI-AL QAEDA FIGHT
Yet even if the rebellion is unlikely to succeed in creating a new Tuareg state, it is a direct challenge both to Mali and the international fight against al Qaeda cells and trafficking gangs that have made the desert north their stamping ground.
The mingling of Islamists in the multi-million dollar ransom economy fuelled by kidnapping Westerners and the trafficking of cocaine and other goods have forced the region onto the West's security agenda.
A second diplomat said that while Mali's military may be facing a more muscular rebellion than ever before, independence was an "unattainable goal" and the rebellion could be resolved through a political solution.
"The bigger existential threat to Mali is the threat of international drug trade and terrorism," the diplomat said.
Washington has tried to bolster Mali's army, providing $17 million in military aid over the last year to equip and train forces in everything from desert warfare to winning hearts and minds. European nations have offered their help too.
But many of these men and much of this equipment are now likely to be diverted to tackle the MNLA, not Islamists.
A Reuters reporter travelling on February 4 on the road south from Kidal saw convoys of Malian soldiers heading north to reinforce units there, many travelling in trucks Washington had provided last year for counter-terrorism operations.
Operation Flintlock, an annual U.S.-run counter-terrorism training operation in the Sahara, was due to take place in Mali next month but will have to be delayed due to the rebellion.
According to www.magharebia.com, a North African news website sponsored by the U.S. military, a small unit of Algerian trainers dispatched to Mali's north to train and equip local units has since been forced to leave due to the fighting.
"That is the sort of coordination and movement that is being diverted (by the rebellion)," the second diplomat said.
REBELLION, CRIME AND JIHADISM
For those who fear fragile governments in the region are losing control of their desert zones, the question is where the MNLA fits into the complex web of groups, including al Qaeda cells, international traffickers and local bandits, who have filled the void out of reach of the distant central government.
The Tuareg do not have any ideological links with al Qaeda's North African wing, AQIM. But family ties and sheer opportunism mean that clear distinctions are hard to come by in a zone where rebellion, crime and jihad regularly overlap.
Iyad Ag Ghali, a former rebel who served briefly as Mali's Consul General in Saudi Arabia before returning home to turn his hand at hostage-negotiations in the north, is a case in point.
Ag Ghali has since formed an Islamic movement yet diplomats say his only concrete link with al Qaeda is through a cousin who is a local commander. Diplomats and analysts say at least some of his men seem to have fought with the MNLA in recent fighting.
The rebels say they have recruited several dozen Tuareg gunmen who had previously been with AQIM.
Local alliances and loyalties often appear as shifting as the desert sands that blanket the hostile Sahara wastes.
"Today, no one really knows who is with whom," said Haidara, the parliamentary deputy from Timbuktu.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Lamine Chikhi in Algiers; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Mark John and Pascal Fletcher)