By David Lewis
DAKAR (Reuters) - Tuareg fighters are celebrating the seizure of key towns in Mali's north as a historic victory in their half-century battle for a desert homeland.
But for the Sahel region and wider world, their lightning advance, made as the distant southern capital Bamako struggled with the aftermath of a coup, poses a security nightmare.
The rebel success has swept with it a collection of other gunmen, including Islamists, al Qaeda and others with criminal links, widening an area of lawless instability on the Sahara's edge.
"If the situation was delicate before the coup, it is now a total defeat," said one senior diplomat following the situation.
"This was the worst case scenario and it has happened. It can worsen yet if there is no quick resolution to the institutional impasse in Bamako," the diplomat added.
In three short days last week, a mix of rebel forces seized the three main regional centers of a territory the size of France, bringing the Tuareg closer than ever before to their decades-old dream of carving out a desert nation of their own.
In Kidal, the top Tuareg army officer, surrounded by rebels, deserted with 500 heavily armed men. The garrison town of Gao with its helicopter gunships folded in hours as soldiers fled. Militia who were expected to hold Timbuktu put up no resistance.
"The concern was always about an ungoverned space," said Todd Moss, vice president at the Center for Global Development and a former senior U.S. diplomat for Africa.
"(Now) instead of having a few pockets you now have a huge zone. That gives everybody the freedom to operate," he added, referring to a region which al Qaeda cells, hostage-takers and smugglers have already made their own.
The coup in Bamako and the implosion of Mali's forces in the north have left the West African nation helpless. Mali will need its neighbors to provide a firewall against any new push south but no intervention is likely while the junta remains in power.
NORTH LOST, BUT TO WHOM?
Secular, separatist rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) proclaimed the "liberation" of the Azawad territory they say is rightfully theirs on their website.
"Long live Azawad! Land of the free people," the post on the group's Facebook page said of an area that hosts most of Mali's potential oil and part of its mineral riches.
But according to residents and witnesses in Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the reality is less clear-cut.
Attacks were carried out alongside Ansar Dine, another group of fighters who say their aim is to impose sharia law across all of Mali rather than an independent desert nation.
Moreover, in a zone where alliances shift as easily as the desert sands and where local or family links can be as important as strategic objectives, there is evidence of at least personal ties between some rebels and local al Qaeda fighters.
In Kidal, the heartland of Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghali, residents said music had been replaced by prayer readings on the local radio and western dress was now banned in public.
To the south in Gao, hotels, bars, churches and the offices of aid agencies, all seen as anti-Islamic, were ransacked by Islamists, a Reuters witness said.
While the advance was relatively bloodless, there were nonetheless acts of extreme violence. The head of a soldier killed in the advance was displayed on a spike at the entrance of a base which was briefly held by Ansar Dine before the MNLA took over, the witness added.
"There has been disorder," Moussa Ag Jicoda, a local MNLA commander speaking to Reuters by satellite phone from Gao's military base, acknowledged.
"Ansar Dine are here but their objectives and ours are very different. They did come in to the town but it was us who took the military camp," he added. "There is no collaboration or an agreement. But maybe they took advantage of disorder."
For now, the MNLA has an uneasy co-existence with Ansar Dine in the places they occupy. But with the MNLA having pledged in the past to push al Qaeda and its allies from northern Mali, many ask how long the relationship will last.
In Timbuktu, first the flag of the separatist MNLA flew above the governor's office. Then, according to residents, it was burned and replaced by the black flag of Ansar Dine.
A resident in the town said Islamists had threatened to behead four youths caught looting the offices of Mali's energy company. Thieves have also been threatened amputation. It was not possible to verify what came of the threats.
Local sources and residents say the ancient trading post of Timbuktu has been a focal point of activity in past days.
MNLA leader Colonel Mahamed Ag Najim has set up base at the airport while Ansar Dine's Ag Ghali had been in the town, they said. MUJWA, another Islamist group linked to the kidnapping of foreigners, is also active in the area.
A Malian source with intimate knowledge of the groups active in the zone said there had been several sightings in Timbuktu of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a senior figure in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and his No. 2 on Tuesday.
"We fear that in this confused situation Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb will take advantage of the situation to expand its perimeter of activity and strengthen the terrorist threat," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
ROGUE DESERT STATE
Thirteen Western hostages, six of them French, are believed to be held by gunmen in the zone now controlled by rebels.
Beyond the seized regional capitals, border towns like Tin Zaouatine, which are used as transit hubs for trans-Sahara cocaine and hashish smuggling are now firmly in rebel hands.
The same is true of Tessalit, a military base near Algeria's border that has a 4 km concrete runway and has been coveted by Western nations seeking to monitor the Sahara. Earlier in the fighting, U.S. forces had air-dropped rations to Malian forces trying to fight off a rebel siege there.
In its strongest statement yet on the crisis, the U.S. State Department warned on Tuesday that the territorial integrity of Mali was now at stake.
The major unknown factor now is that while the MNLA says it has taken all the territory it considers part of Azawad, Ansar Dine has put no such limits on how far south it will go.
"The interest of the international community is that this sanctuary is closed on one way or another. And Mali must reclaim its integrity," said the diplomat.
Abdel-Fatau Musah, director of external relations at ECOWAS, warned of a possible "terrorist zone" while a second diplomat went further by warning of the emergence of an "autonomous rogue state across the Sahara".
REGIONAL FORCE TO THE RESCUE
Some optimists had suggested that the quick rebel push would accelerate the inevitable move from battlefield to the negotiating table.
But with ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure in hiding and the junta in Bamako recognized neither abroad nor by the northerners, there is really no one for the rebels to talk to.
ECOWAS countries, who days before the coup were weighing how to help Mali secure the north, have now launched economic and diplomatic sanctions aimed at forcing the mid-ranking officers behind the coup to stand down immediately.
"What is happening in the north is very serious ... but (ECOWAS) is not going to (get involved) unless there is a legitimate government place," said ECOWAS's Musah.
Any path out of the crisis will be long and uncertain.
Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara, the current head of ECOWAS, has called for the "activation" of the West African bloc's standby force of some 3,000 men. But the force only exists on paper and winning troop pledges could take weeks.
Even assuming ECOWAS secures enough troop contributions to deploy, it is not expected to be able to do much more than hold a frontline to prevent any further push south.
Ex-colonial power France, which has troops stationed in the region, has ruled out direct military intervention. Washington, a major ally of Mali, has also cut military aid since the coup and is unlikely to intervene directly.
Mauritania and Algeria, also desert nations, have deeper knowledge of the terrain and groups involved. But both have had troubled ties with Mali and many in Bamako accuse Mauritania of having backed the rebellion - something it denies.
"It will be very difficult for the state to recuperate the north," said the Malian source with intimate knowledge of the zone. "It is hot. It is hostile. Who can come and fight?"
(Additional reporting by Bate Felix and Adama Diarra in Bamako; Cheikh Dioura in Gao; John Irish in Paris; Editing by Mark John and Giles Elgood)