Feuding militant groups in Mali's desert north
Posted Saturday, June 30 2012 at 18:41
Mali's desert north has fallen into the hands of Islamist hardliners in the past three months, sparking regional and international fears of a new haven for extremists in north Africa.
The insurgents swept through the region amid a power vacuum created by a March 22 coup in the southern capital Bamako.
Ethnic Tuareg desert nomads and Al-Qaeda linked extremists quickly took key towns in northern Mali, a land of ancient caravan routes that is also notorious for drugs and arms smuggling and kidnappings for ransom.
Since then, the hardline Islamists have largely usurped their former brothers-in-arms, the secular Tuareg group who have long demanded an independent homeland they call Azawad.
The Islamists, among them Al-Qaeda's regional franchise, have imposed strict shariah law and started destroying world heritage-listed religious monuments in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
West African group ECOWAS is considering sending an intervention force of more than 3,000 troops into Mali, sparking a threat from the Islamists that nations taking part will become targets.
Below are profiles of the main groups:
Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA)
The Tuareg, nomadic desert tribes known for their indigo turbans, have long felt marginalised and waged several rebellions in past decades, demanding independence for "Azawad", their ancestral homeland.
The MNLA formed in late 2011 when it was boosted by the return of armed, battle-hardened Tuareg who had fought as mercenaries for Libya's dictator Moamer Kadhafi before he was killed in last year's uprising.
In a series of lightening strikes after the March 22 coup, the MNLA seized the three northern cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, joined in their campaign by Islamist rebel groups.
However, since then their Islamist battlefield allies pushed them out of Gao and Timbuktu to impose sharia law, an interest the MNLA does not share.
The MNLA is led by secretary general Bilal Ag Acherif and head of the political wing Mahmoud Ag Aghali, according to its website. In early June, it created a so-called Transitional Council of Azawad State, presided over by Bilal Ag Acherif.
Ansar Dine ('Defenders of Faith' in Arabic)
This new Islamist movement was formed by renowned Tuareg commander Iyad Ag Ghaly who led a 1990-95 rebellion.
He then became a key player in peace talks between the government and Tuareg during a 2006-2007 rebellion.
Ansar Dine made its presence on the northern battlefield known in February with the release of a video seen by AFP in which it said it wanted to impose sharia law in Mali and named Ag Ghaly its commander.
Both the Tuareg and Ansar Dine fought together for Kidal and Timbuktu.