BAMAKO/NOUAKCHOTT- Top members of Tuareg-led Malian rebel group MNLA ditched on Friday a week-old pact with al Qaeda-linked Islamists to turn the country’s north into an Islamic state, saying it contravened their secular values.
However one representative of the Islamist group, Ansar Dine, told Reuters that the accord was irrevocable and brushed off their rejection as “the view of a few individuals”.
The West African country has been in chaos since separatist MNLA, which wants an independent state it calls Azawad, seized the desert north in early April with the backing of Ansar Dine, whose goal is to impose sharia, Islamic law, across all Mali.
The confusion both in the north and the southern capital Bamako, still recovering from a March 22 military coup, has prompted fears of the emergence of a new “rogue state” acting as a safe haven for terror activity.
“The political wing, the executive wing of the MNLA, faced with the intransigence of Ansar Dine on applying sharia in Azawad and in line with its resolutely secular stance, denounce the accord with this organisation and declare all its dispositions null and void,” said a statement issued by Hama Ag Mahmoud, a senior MNLA political figure.
The emailed statement said it was issued in the name of the MNLA as a whole but it was not immediately possible to verify whether this was now the official stance of the rebel group. The deal was also denounced in a separate statement by Magdi Ag Bohada, another senior member of its political wing.
In an open letter posted on Berber website Tamazgha.fr, the MNLA’s communication director Mossa Ag Attaher acknowledged “a growing malaise” in the ranks of the group linked to a feud between its French-speaking and Arab-speaking factions.
While Attaher did not elaborate, the linguistic split could partly reflect divisions between those rebels who have remained in the former French colony and those who were based in Libya until the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
“The application of sharia and the Arabisation of our people is a grave violation of our culture and identity,” he said of a region in which nomadic Tuaregs have co-existed with other ethnic groups and where moderate Islam is widely practised.
It was not immediately possible to contact other leading MNLA members. But a senior military official for Ansar Dine contacted in the northern city of Gao said the well-armed group continued to apply the agreement.
“The pact signed by the MNLA and Ansar Dine is irrevocable. The views of a few individuals within the MNLA cannot put this fusion in doubt. In any case, we are the majority in control of all three of Mali’s northern regions,” Oumar Ould Hamama told Reuters by telephone from the northern city of Gao.
The MNLA and Ansar Dine had in past weeks reached an often tense accommodation carving up control of key regional centres such as Gao, Kidal and the ancient trading city of Timbuktu.
Locals have protested against efforts by Ansar Dine to enforce a strict dress code and to impose sharia punishments on those found drinking alcohol or watching television.
Ansar Dine’s ties to local al Qaeda fighters who have been responsible for a series of kidnappings of Westerners in the region have raised fears in the West. France has urged the African Union to refer the crisis to the U.N. Security Council.
The MNLA’s declaration of Azawad independence has been ignored internationally – although before the tie-up with Ansar Dine, some countries recognised a need for dialogue on some of their grievances against the southern capital in Bamako.
But neither a political resolution nor military intervention is imminent, particularly as Mali’s transition back to civilian rule was put in doubt last month when the caretaker president was beaten up during a crowd invasion of his palace.
Dioncounda Traore is still recovering in France after the attack and has not said when he is due to return.