Bruce Crumley writes: Though long hostile to allied Islamist groups across the Sahel region, Tuareg nationalists have struggled for decades for more freedom and autonomy. Boosted by an influx of weapons from the looted arsenals of slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, they accepted the help of Islamist militias when wresting control of half of Mali last year—only to then see the radicals unilaterally impose their own brand of brutal Sharia rule over stretches of the breakaway region. But with those extremists now scattered and in retreat, calls are now arising for the central government and Tuareg leaders to link up against the common jihadi foe.
“We understand the resistance in Bamako to dealing with Tuareg forces that participated in the recent southern offensive, but the long-term stability of Mali relies on the central government and the Tuaregs negotiating and coming to certain agreements,” says a French government official who declines to be quoted by name. “The Tuaregs made a terrible decision in banding with the Islamists, and Malian anger over the consequences is understandable. But our view is all Tuareg leaders who renounce violence and accept the territorial integrity of Mali should be considered legitimate interlocutors in the political rebuilding process.”
That thinking may take some time to sell—particularly among southern Malians resentful of the Tuaregs separatist insurgency that enabled the Islamists’ rise in the power gap that followed a March 2012 military coup in Bamako. Now, there are already accusations of summary executions and rights violations by Malian forces during France’s anti-Islamist counter-offensive. Following the liberation of northern cities like Gao and Timbuktu, meanwhile, reports circulated that armed forces and locals had begun attacking other residents suspected of having supported or prospered under Islamist rule. As a result, once French forces freed the Tuareg-held town of Kidal Wednesday, military officials called in support of 1,400 Chadian troops—not Malian soldiers—to police the areato avert any vengeance killing.
That precautionary move is doubly significant in Kidal, given the complex Tuareg situation there. The Islamist group Ansar Dine had claimed to control Kidal—though there were no signs of any Islamist fighters when the French arrived there. The previous week, meantime, an influential Ansar Dine leader, Alghabass Ag Intalla, announced he’d bolted the al Qaeda-allied group to found the Islamic Movement for Azawad (IMA)—a nationalist Tuareg force renouncing “extremism and terrorism.” Shortly after, the secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) offered to assist French troops continue the battle against jihadi militias.
Both the IMA and MNLA also say they’re ready to partake in talks towards a north-south political settlement capable of restoring peace and stability to Mali. Traoré and other central Malian leaders say they may accept negotiating with the MNLA, but have ruled out any cooperation with the IMA and any other Tuareg with past or present ties to extremists. That’s a position Paris is hoping to shift.
AFP reports: France said it carried out major air strikes Sunday near Kidal, the last bastion of armed extremists chased from Mali’s desert north in a lightning French-led offensive, after a whirlwind visit by President Francois Hollande.
An army spokesman said 30 warplanes had bombed training and logistics centres run by Islamist extremists overnight in the Tessalit area north of Kidal, where French troops took the airport Wednesday and have been working to secure the town itself.
Residents said French and Chadian soldiers had patrolled the town for the first time Saturday as the rest of the country feted Hollande on his tour, a victory lap that came three weeks into a so far successful intervention to oust the Islamists who occupied northern Mali for 10 months.