BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Tuareg leaders in northern Mali have formed a new group which they say will aim to negotiate with the Malian government, as questions linger over the future of the Kidal region.
In a statement announcing the launch of the High Council for the Azawad, organizers said they are not seeking independence from Mali and instead want dialogue. But the new body appears to be led by several of the same Tuareg dignitaries who earlier backed the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, a rebel group which invaded northern Mali last year and declared independence.
They claimed they wanted to create a homeland for the Tuareg people known as Azawad, a word in the local language referring to northern Mali and for a few weeks the multicolored NMLA flag fluttered from administrative buildings in the north. But by June of last year, the secular Tuaregs were pushed out by a mixture of al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist groups who controlled a France-sized territory until January, when French soldiers invaded to oust the jihadists.
The French have since succeeded in liberating all three provincial capitals in the north from the grips of the extremists. However, they were only able to hand back control to the Malian army of two of the three — the cities of Timbuktu and Gao.
Kidal is now ruled by the Tuaregs, who have refused to allow Mali's military to return, accusing the army of systematically targeting the lighter-skinned ethnic groups in the north.
Mohamed Ag Intalla, the president of the newly-created council, said: "For too long, we hung back with our arms crossed, waiting for a solution to our problem to come from one direction or another. But instead the fire just keeps on growing stronger in our region. It's for this reason that we created the High Council for the Azawad in order to reunite all the sons of the Azawad in order to find a way out of this crisis," he said by telephone on Monday.
The new group appears to be an attempt to create a new appellation that is not tainted by the NMLA's fight for independence. Intalla declined to provide the names of other Tuaregs who belong to the council, but a local official who had been briefed on the membership of the group said that the new body consists of the same people who were in the NMLA.
"Nothing has changed. They've just given themselves a new name," said the elected official from Kidal, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. "They have just put on a different hat."
Mali has made clear that they will not negotiate on the issue of independence, saying that Mali's territorial integrity cannot be violated. Also tarnishing the NMLA is the fact that many of their members switched sides and joined the al-Qaida-linked Ansar Dine, after Kidal fell to the extremists.
"It's a peaceful movement that does not call for independence for part of northern Mali and is against the whole idea of partition," said the statement from the high council.
Kidal's confused status has become an embarrassment for the French as well as for the Malian state. French special forces are based at the Kidal airport, but they do not control the town, where roadblocks are manned by NMLA fighters. Reporters seeking to go to Kidal need to have an NMLA escort, in order to get past the numerous checkpoints. The Malian military has not dared approach, after the NMLA made clear that they would attack.
Recently, the Tuaregs in Kidal announced that they had appointed their own governor, a position outside the framework of the Malian state, indicating that they were going ahead with plans to create their own administration.
However, the idea of negotiating with Tuareg leaders remains deeply unpopular in the south, where many blame the 2012 Tuareg separatist rebellion for sparking Mali's current crisis, which has forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert, have risen up against the central government in Mali several times since the country's independence from France in 1960. They have long complained that Mali's government — which is dominated by ethnic groups from the country's south — has ignored the nation's impoverished north.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.