BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Some separatist ethnic Tuareg rebels in northern Mali are marking the one-year anniversary of their political movement even after their group officially backed away from its quest for independence.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad was formed last April in northern Mali following the country's coup. On Saturday, revelers marked the occasion with festivities in Kidal and Tessalit, including camel races.
The NMLA initially sought to secede from Mali, but later backed away from that goal. The celebrations of the April 6 anniversary underscore the divergence of opinions on what the Tuaregs' future path should be in northern Mali, which they call Azawad.
"The date of April 6 is historic for the people of Azawad," said Attaye Ag Mohamed, a young member of the group. "We hope for an international conference on the status of Azawad. We want a roadmap guaranteed by the international community that brings us toward self-determination."
Moussa Ag Assaride, the head of communication for the NMLA, said he knew that many within northern Mali are not aware that the group officially is no longer seeking independence. "But that doesn't stop the population from showing their joy," he said.
In the aftermath of last year's coup, both Tuaregs and Islamic extremists made rapid advances across northern Mali and the poorly armed Malian soldiers fled.
For several months, the Islamic extremists coexisted with the secular Tuareg rebels. In late May 2012, the two sides attempted to sign a deal, agreeing to create an independent Islamic state called Azawad. But the agreement fell apart days later. By June, the Islamic extremists had chased the secular rebels out of northern Mali's main cities.
However, a French-led military operation launched in mid-January forced the extremists to flee those cities. Since then, the NMLA has been reasserting its presence as the French-led intervention forced many of the extremists into the surrounding desert.
The secular rebels have said they are willing to work with the French forces but not Malian troops, whom they accuse of committing reprisals against the lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs.