|Tuaregs claim 'independence' from Mali|
Rebel group proclaims "independence of Azawad" following gains in northern Mali, as Algerian consulate staff abducted.
Last Modified: 06 Apr 2012 10:48
Tuareg rebels in northern Mali have proclaimed the "independence of Azawad" in a statement on their website and through a spokesperson in Paris.
"We solemnly proclaim the independence of Azawad as from today," Mossa Ag Attaher said on Friday, adding that the rebels would respect "the borders with other states".
Mali has been gripped by instability, following a coup by army officers in the capital Bamako and advances by Tuareg fighters and other armed groups that have seen a string of northern towns fall under their control in the broadly triangular area of desert in northern Mali
France, Mali's former colonial ruler, dismissed the declaration of independence, French defence minister Gerard Longuet said.
"A unilateral declaration of independence which is not recognised by African states would not have any meaning for us," Longuet told the Reuters news agency.
Ahmed Ouyahia, Algeria's prime minister, was quoted by France's Le Monde newspaper as saying the neighbouring country would "never accept questioning Mali's territorial integrity".
Armed fighters stormed an Algerian consulate in northeastern Mali on Thursday, abducting seven diplomats amid fears that Al Qaeda-linked groups could turn the country into a rogue state and fuel a humanitarian crisis.
As the MNLA claimed success in its decades-old struggle to "liberate" their homeland, there were reports that Ansar Dine, an Islamist group which also joined the fight against Malian government forces, had begun imposing Sharia law in some northern areas of Mali.
"The coup leaders were of the view that they would get more support from the people because of the failure of the military establishment to cope with the situation," said Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Bamako, the Malian capital in the south of the country.
"But they suddenly found themselves in a strange situation - the coup leaders lost control of half of the country, and they're now hoping for international support."
The MNLA, which on Thursday said it had halted military operations as a result of their capture of the Azawad, called on the international community to recognise its independence.
"We completely accept the role and responsibility that behoves us to secure this territory," Ag Attaher said. "We have ended a very important fight, that of liberation... now the biggest task commences."
But a Malian military source told the AFP news agency that Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly wielded more power in the north, with the backing of regional al-Qaeda fighters.
"From what we know, the MNLA is in charge of nothing at the moment ... it is Iyad who is the strongest and he is with AQIM," the source said, referring to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Ag Attaher, speaking on behalf of the MNLA, called the kidnapping "deplorable", adding that his group had been against that action but finally went along with the move so as to spare lives.
Witnesses told AFP that raiders had hoisted the black Salafist flag that has been the emblem of rebels who had overrun Gao, Timbuktu and other northern towns.
Amnesty International warned on Thursday that Mali's north faces a humanitarian catastrophe after rebels looted food and medicine supplies across an arid region already facing shortages.
The British Embassy in Mali has been closed as violent unrest continues to escalate in the wake of a military coup.
British nationals living and working in the troubled Saharan state were told to get out of the country earlier this week.
Now staff are being withdrawn from the British Embassy, meaning those British nationals who choose to remain in the country against official advice will have limited access to help.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: "Given the unstable and unpredictable situation in Mali and the continuing lack of constitutional rule, the UK has decided to temporarily withdraw its staff from its embassy in Bamako and temporarily suspend all in-country services immediately, including consular assistance.
"Consular assistance will continue to be provided to British nationals from our embassy in Dakar (in neighbouring Senegal) but the UK's ability to help British nationals who chose to remain in Mali may become limited.
"We have recommended since April 4 that British nationals should leave Mali as soon as possible by commercial means."
Mali has been in political crisis since a military coup in March which toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure and the elected government for failing to stop the advance of Tuareg rebels in the north of the country.
The rebels have been fighting for independence for the northern half of Mali for decades.
They have now declared independence for what they called the Azawad nation after making significant territorial gains recently, including taking the World Heritage Site of Timbuktu.
AFP - France rejected on Friday the declaration of an independent Tuareg homeland by rebel fighters in northern Mali, and vowed to support the territorial integrity of its former colony.
"France and the international community is attached to and defends the unity and territorial integrity of Mali," he said. The African Union also rejected the independence declaration.
Valero said France was urging the MNLA to come to a negotiated settlement with the government in Mali that would be "respectful of the constitutional order in Mali and the unity of the country."
He also condemned what he said was the "violence and looting" being carried out by two Islamist groups that are reportedly allied to the MNLA, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine.
Asked whether this meant that France draws a distinction between the actions of the MNLA, which is fighting for Tuareg independence, and the Islamist rebels, Valero said, "Yes."