BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Youth in the recently-liberated Malian city of Gao held a sit-in on Thursday to protest against what they see as France's tacit support of the Tuareg ethnic group, the first indication that the mood toward the French in Mali is changing.
Gao was the first city where Islamic extremists were pushed out by French forces in January, and is now where the population is staging the first act of protest against the French.
The youth staged the sit-in in an area in the center of the city that came to be known as "Shariah Square" during the city's 10-month-long occupation last year by the radical Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO. Countless accused thieves were strapped to chairs and had their hands sawed off by the jihadists in the square, in scenes of horror that had never previously been witnessed in this part of the world that has long practiced a more tolerant version of the religion.
Moussa Boureima Yoro, who took part in the protest, said the youth are unhappy with what they see as France's bias toward the Tuaregs, including the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, a Tuareg rebel group which is currently controlling the city of Kidal, located 350 kilometers (220 miles) north of Gao.
"We want to give France a heads-up and to tell them that they are allowing a situation to take place in Kidal that we do not understand," Yoro said. "We want France to tell us what they are up to — because we are confused when they say on the one hand that Kidal is part of Mali, and at the same time, they act as if it doesn't belong to Mali."
Yoro, who was a member of the committee that organized the sit-in, said: "It's true that France liberated us, but at the same time we don't want to be taken advantage of."
The organizers of the early morning protest Thursday said more than 1,000 people participated, though officials said the number of people protesting was significantly less.
The protesters accuse France of long having given preferential treatment to the Tuaregs, a minority ethnic group whose members are predominantly from the country's north, a zone they refer to as the Azawad in the Tamashek language. Last year, the NMLA, made up of secular Tuaregs demanding independence, swept across the north, seizing towns and villages and briefly proclaiming the birth of a new Tuareg nation. They were swiftly kicked out by Islamic militants, who rode their coattails into the towns, only to then turn on their former allies, yanking down their multi-colored flags in order to replace them with the black flag of extreme Islam.
France, Mali's former colonial ruler, was greeted in Gao with shouts of "Vive la France" when they liberated the city on Jan. 26, and the scenes of exuberance were repeated throughout the northern towns they freed. With one major exception: Kidal.
The northernmost provincial capital has long been a Tuareg stronghold, and when French special forces entered the city they weren't accompanied by the Malian military. Nearly five months later, Malian soldiers have yet to step foot in Kidal. While the country's army has not been able to return, the NMLA was soon able to come back to Kidal. The protesters on Thursday accused France, which has a unit stationed at the Kidal airport, of simply looking the other way when the rebels returned.
Those gathered in the square also took issue with the Tuareg soldiers, who are part of a Tuareg battalion in the army, now patrolling Gao. The colonel leading the battalion defected during the events of 2012 and eventually went into exile along with his fighters in neighboring Niger. Col. Elhadji Gamou's brigade is now back in Gao, patrolling the streets. Civilians who are mostly from the darker-skinned, sub-Saharan ethnic groups accuse the Tuaregs of having shown complicity toward the Islamic extremists.
"We are here to denounce the presence of the Tuaregs in Gao. The soldiers loyal to Col. Gamou are doing everything they can to make the Tuaregs return in great numbers — and we are not OK with this. We suffered for many months here in Gao because of them," said Atayoubou Agaly Maiga, a member of one of Gao's self-defense groups which were created to ferret out the members of extremist groups hiding among the population after their ouster by the French.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.