Age-old Tuareg problem looms large as Mali battles rebels

Mali`s latest bloody battle with Tuareg separatist militants in the Sahara desert has reignited an age-old powder keg for a government struggling to keep the deeply-divided country together.

Bamako: Mali`s latest bloody battle with Tuareg separatist militants in the Sahara desert has reignited an age-old powder keg for a government struggling to keep the deeply-divided country together.

The army sent 1,500 troops on Monday to retake the sand-swept rebel stronghold of Kidal after armed Tuareg seized local government offices, engaging the army in a firefight in which dozens were killed.

The showdown is the latest act in a long line of uprisings among the traditionally nomadic north African people, who have fought Mali`s central government on and off since the country gained independence from France in 1960.

After teaming up with armed Islamist extremists in the region in 2012 the MNLA declared independence for Azawad, the Tuareg name for their homeland, but the alliance was short-lived.

More interested in sharia than independence, the Al-Qaeda-linked groups overpowered the MNLA and planted their own black flags across the north, ruling with brutal repression until France sent in 4,000 troops in January 2013 to drive them out.

The MNLA is now seeking to reassert its relevance in "Azawad" -- a chunk of desert the size of Texas comprising about 60 percent of the country, and a melting pot of blacks, lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arab Moors.

But the militia may have underestimated the anger the battle for Kidal has provoked in Bamako, which broke out as Prime Minister Moussa Mara was headed to town as part of a tour of the north.

"It is an affront that the government wants to avenge after the turbulent visit of the prime minister to Kidal. Malian opinion is really antagonised, the government is being forced to flex its muscles," said anthropologist Naffet Keita.

He said the government had decided to "cut the Gordian knot" -- to act quickly and decisively in bringing solution to a problem which has dragged on too long.It is by no means clear that the MNLA can claim to speak for the entire population of "Azawad", or even the Tuareg, a group which is not distinguishable by a common language, racial heritage, clan or goal for independence.

An online petition of 600 signatures of "Tuareg Malians" disavows the separatist agenda of the MNLA, dismissing the group as a "minority within a minority".

The CIA World Factbook says "Tuareg and Moor" account for 10 percent of the population and while the Tuareg are likely to be a majority in Kidal, a region of 68,000 people, the darker-skinned Songhai are the biggest group in northern Mali.

The Tuareg define themselves by their language, using the name "Kel Tamasheq" -- "those who speak the Tamasheq tongue".

A 2009 government census says 3.5 percent of Malians -- about 500,000 people -- speak Tamasheq as their first language.

But the black descendants of slaves held by the Tuareg elite, known as the Bella, also speak Tamasheq and are more numerous than the light-skinned descendants of the slave owners.

Neither group identifies with the other, and the Bella were among the first victims of atrocities committed by the MNLA during the 2012 uprising.

Further giving the lie to the idea of a united Tuareg people is the fact that thousands of the soldiers fighting the MNLA rebellion are themselves reintegrated Tuareg fighters.

At the start of the last century, the Tuareg controlled the cattle and caravan trades, but famines saw the disappearance of their herds and by the time of independence they were the poorest people in the Sahara and Sahel.

Thousands migrated in the 1980s to Algeria and Libya, where Moamer Kadhafi incorporated many into his pan-Arab military force.A decade later, the deterioration of the Libyan economy forced the young Tuareg to return, sometimes violently, to their home countries, where they rapidly swelled the ranks of groups fighting for autonomy in Mali and Niger.

By then they had swapped their swords, old rifles and camels for Kalashnikovs and 4x4s, launching rebellions in both countries in 1990 which left hundreds dead and thousands displaced.

Peace accords were signed but never endured, and another rebellion sprung up in Niger in 2007, eventually spreading to Mali.

A ceasefire was declared in 2009 but many Tuareg had fled to Libya, where they fought alongside troops loyal to Kadhafi, whose regime was battling a rebellion inspired by the Arab Spring.

With Kadhafi dead and his regime defeated, the nomads -- heavily armed and battle hardened -- made their way back to Mali and united in late 2011 with other former rebels to form the MNLA.

Seen as the saviour of Mali in the immediate aftermath of its military intervention, France has since been heavily criticised for allowing the MNLA to regain a footing in Kidal when they ousted the Islamists.

"For the public, France is a supporter of the Tuareg," sociologist Mamadou Samake said, explaining a small protest Monday in front of the French embassy in Bamako.

Whether the battle for Kidal will prove the MNLA`s downfall remains to be seen, with victory for Mali`s troops by no means assured.

"To take Kidal, you have to control four major highways -- not only control them, but keep them under control for several weeks," a foreign military source told AFP.

"The Malian army has struggled in the recent past and couldn`t control all of these axes. Now, we`ll see."


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