One of the two insurgent groups that seized control of the northern half of Mali announced Monday that it plans to put in place a council to govern the territory under rebel control, indicating it is moving forward with plans to create a new state.
The statement issued in the northern city of Gao, a strategic town that fell to the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, said: "The NMLA will put in place a provisional council that will lead the country in the coming period and will work to put in place a government of national unity."
The NMLA is led by Tuareg separatists, including some who fought in the army of ex-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. After the fall of Tripoli, they regrouped in northern Mali, one of the traditional homelands of the Tuareg people, and launched a new rebellion, saying they wanted to carve out an independent homeland for the Tuareg nation, called Azawad.
They had seized only minor towns for the first three months of their uprising, but on March 21, a coup in Mali overturned its democratically elected government. The rebels took advantage of the power vacuum to push forward, seizing the northern half of the nation, a territory larger than France, in a matter of weeks. They were helped by an Islamic faction, called Ansar Dine, which recently signed an agreement agreeing to merge with the NMLA.
However, their relationship has been rocky and there were reports that the merger was off after disagreements over what kind of Islamic law will be imposed on the normally tolerant and moderate soil of northern Mali.
The statement, signed by the NMLA's Secretary-General Bilal Ag Acharif, comes after two days of closed-door meetings between the NMLA's commanders and Iyad Ag Ghali, the shadowy leader of Ansar Dine, who has made clear that he wants to impose Islamic law.
Ag Ghali is known to have ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, the al-Qaida cell active in North and West Africa.
The statement said that the agreement signed between the two groups on May 26 "is being studied by the two parties and a commission is going to be appointed in order to treat the points of divergence."
Acharif also denied that the NMLA has any ties to the al-Qaida group. "(We express) our shock and our condemnation of certain declarations in the media and press articles that try to make an amalgam between those fighting for Azawad and al-Qaida."
He said neighboring countries should be reassured that the NMLA has no intention of destabilizing them.
There have been increasing reports that northern Mali has become a magnet for terrorists. Last month, a leader of AQIM issued an audiotape praising the Islamic fighters who seized control of the north of Mali, and giving then point-by-point instructions on how to impose Islamic law without alienating the people.
The president of Benin, Yayi Boni, who is the rotating chairperson of the African Union, recently told French radio RFI that he feared that if left alone, the rebels would build "an African Afghanistan."
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.