REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Tuareg rebels who recently captured northern Mali in a stunning military advance declared their own independent state Friday.
The state, which the rebels call Azawad, has been the dream of Tuareg fighters for decades, but it was immediately dismissed by France, the former colonial power in the region. It was also rejected by the European Union and the African Union, which typically refuses to recognize power seized by force or rebellion.
However, Mali remains effectively partitioned. Its weak military junta, which took power in a coup last month, appears incapable of reversing the Tauregs' advance. Mali's neighbors have indicated they may send a force of 2,000 soldiers to Mali, without indicating whether the force would seek to dislodge the Tuareg fighters.
Military officers ousted the president amid outrage in the army over the government's failure to properly arm and equip troops to fight the heavily armed, battle-hardened Tuareg rebels, known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or the MNLA (an acronym drawn from the French version of the group's name). The whereabouts of the president are still unknown, however the AU has reported him to be safe.
In the days after the coup, town after town fell in the north to the Tuaregs. They declared a ceasefire Thursday, announcing they had captured the territory of Azawad, which they see as their homeland.
"The Executive Committee of the MNLA calls on the entire international community to immediately recognize, in a spirit of justice and peace, the independent state of Azawad," Billal Ag Acherif, secretary-general of the MNLA said on the group's website.
Western governments are alarmed about a second group, Ansar Dine, which has swept into some of northern towns on the MNLA's coattails. It has ordered shopkeepers to pull down pictures depicting people, declaring them un-Islamic, and it has told residents it plans to impose Islamic law. Ansar Dine has links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, raising fears the terror group could strengthen its hand in the region, already a hub for cocaine trafficking, crime and kidnappings.
The group has also rejected the MNLA's independence declaration, according to agency reports.
There are other tensions between the MNLA and Ansar Dine, with many Tuaregs concerned that Western fears about Ansar Dine's links to a terror group could spoil a bid for an independent homeland.
Since seizing power, the coup leader, Amadou Sanogo, has appealed for outside military help to quell the MNLA rebellion. Instead, his country has been slapped with sanctions and a blockade by the Economic Community Of West African States, the regional leadership body. His country faces fuel shortages and a cash crisis.
France has called for a political solution to the Tuareg rebellion. French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said Friday that the declaration of independence was meaningless and lacked support from African countries.
The Tuaregs have launched several rebellions over the years. They are a nomadic people, famed for their hand-dyed traditional blue turbans and gowns, who occupy a large swath of the Sahara Desert, including parts of Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya, where many fought with the forces of former leader Moammar Kadafi in last year's war.
When Kadafi was ousted, they returned, heavily armed, to Mali and launched their rebellion in January.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Malians from the north hold a sign reading "Let us stop dreaming of a utopian country -- Let us dedicate ourselves to the North of Mali " as they take part in a demonstration Friday in Bamako, protesting the occupation of the north by Tuareg fighters. Credit: Issouf Sanogo /AFP/Getty Images