Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tuareg rebels advance as junta asserts control

Tuareg rebels closed in on a key city in northern Mali Saturday, taking advantage of a power vacuum in Bamako where putschists insisted they were in firm control after ousting the government.

As the junta concentrated on stamping out rumours it was losing control and condemned widespread looting, soldiers in the distant north recruited militia to help them fight Tuareg rebels waging a battle for independence.

"Thanks to Allah the almighty and his blessings, we will soon take our land in Kidal," Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) said in a statement as its fighters surrounded one of the north's main towns.

Ansar Dine is an Islamist group fighting alongside the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) for the independence of the traditional homeland of the nomadic desert Tuareg in the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.

In the southern triangle where the capital Bamako is situated, mutinous soldiers seized power on Thursday, saying they were fed-up with the government's inability to deal with the Tuareg insurrection which has completely overwhelmed the military.

The light-skinned desert tribes which sparsely populate the north are a minority in the vast country and have staged several uprisings in recent decades as they feel marginalised by Bamako.

On January 17, the Tuareg launched their first rebellion since 2009, boosted by the return of heavily-armed and battle-hardened fighters from Libya, where they had worked for slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Several towns have fallen and scores of soldiers are said to have been killed and captured.

Angry soldiers revolted Wednesday, leading to a full-blown coup by early Thursday as they seized government buildings and attacked the presidency, forcing President Amadou Toumani Toure to flee.

Soldiers left facing the Tuareg are being supported by two notorious militia groups from black communities, mostly Fulani and Songhai, who were involved in earlier Tuareg uprisings.

"We are about 200 youths, the Malian army gave us weapons today and uniforms to fight the country's enemies. We are already in the Gao military camp", said one of these militia, Mahamane Maiga. A Malian officer confirmed the information.

Back in Bamako, a junta frozen out by the international community was at pains to assure citizens it was firmly in power, appearing on state television at regular intervals.

"I am Captain Sanogo and I am in good health, all is well," the coup leader said in a segment broadcast on Saturday, after rumours of his death swirled the evening before.

He insisted he had the backing of all of the armed forces, asking the camera to pan over representatives of the police, paratroopers, air force and paramilitary police -- all low-ranking officers.

Sporadic looting continued despite calls to order by the putsch leaders, sparking anger and fear in Bamako.

"We are scared they come steal from us," said Becaye Soukoule, who says he left his shop closed.

The soldiers also urged petrol station owners to open up and assured they would be secured. Writing ran across the bottom of the television screen telling citizens to call a hotline with any concerns.

"The junta looks increasingly isolated and rudderless," said analyst Paul Melly, of the London-based Chatham house, in Dakar.

"There's no sign of a coherent plan and the putschists seem to be feeling their way hour by hour," he said.

"They don't seem to have expected the rebuff they have encountered from the political class, where all the main parties have united in condemning the coup."

The coup also prompted swift international condemnation. The African Union temporarily suspended Mali, Europe and Canada froze aid and the United States has threatened to follow suit.

A joint mission from the African Union and Economic Community of West African States met representatives of the junta on Friday, according to Malian state television, however details on the talks were not divulged.

Early Saturday, a group of soldiers briefly arrested an opposition politician who had spoken out against the coup and several others told AFP they had gone underground, fearing they were being sought by armed men.

A presidential election in which President Toure was to step down after two terms had been scheduled for April 29.

Toure, who led his own coup in 1991, has not spoken publicly since his ouster, but was believed to be safe.

Sanogo has said all arrested government officials are "safe and sound" and promised the African Union the safe return of top foreign officials stranded in Bamako after the coup.

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