OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — A former colonel in the Tuareg rebel group fighting for an independent homeland in Mali's north announced Monday he is leaving the movement because its goal of independence is unrealistic.
Col. Hassan Ag Medhi told The Associated Press he has quit the Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, known as NMLA, and created the splinter group Front for the Liberation of the Azawad, or FPA, which he says is neither pro-jihad nor pro-independence.
Mali was plunged into turmoil in March after a coup in the capital of Bamako created a security vacuum. That allowed the secular NMLA to sweep across the north, taking half the territory and declaring it a new nation called "Azawad." Only months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamic groups allied with al-Qaida, which have now imposed strict Shariah law in the north.
"What pushed us to create this front today is because we have gotten to a state where we need to think about saving the population which is suffering — there are thousands of refugees," said Ag Medhi said in an interview in the capital of Burkina Faso, which neighbors Mali.
"In light of how long this process is taking, in light of how dysfunctional it's been, we are choosing to go in the direction of peace. We are calling on all the sons of Azawad to put an end to the suffering of the people. We are neither pro-independence, nor pro-jihad. What is foremost in our minds is saving these people whose hands are being cut off," he said in a hotel in downtown Ouagadougou.
The international community has said it can accept neither an independent state in northern Mali, nor one in the hands of Islamic extremists. At least seven people accused of being thieves have had their hands cut off in recent months, after the Islamists began imposing the strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah.
Mediators, led by Burkina's President Blaise Compaore, have attempted to broker a solution through dialogue. Ag Mehdi appears to be angling for a role in the future negotiations by announcing the creation of his front in the home city of the lead mediator, and by signaling that he will meet both conditions set by the international community.
A new report by Amnesty International details gruesome abuses that have been committed by Islamic fighters in the north, who have banned music, demanded that women veil themselves, stoned to death an adulterous couple, and made a regular spectacle out of public amputations. The three main Islamic groups now operating in northern Mali all have ties to al-Qaida.
"We need first of all to rid Azawad of the terrorists and after that we can start talking with all the different interlocutors in Bamako," he said.
In Paris, a spokesman for the NMLA, Moussa Ag Assarid, called the creation of the new front a form of "blackmail," and said that the renegade colonel was simply trying to angle for a position in upcoming talks.
"We are still continuing our combat for independence," he affirmed. "I think most people in our ranks consider this guy an epiphenomenon."