Fighting, crackdown on women mar peace moves in Mali

Saturday November 17 2012

PHOTP | AHMED OUOBA Algabass Ag Intalla, leader of the Ansar Dine delegation (R) attends a meeting with representatives of Mali's Tuareg MNLA group as well as lead negotiator Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore on November 16, 2012 in Ouagadougou.

PHOTP | AHMED OUOBA Algabass Ag Intalla, leader of the Ansar Dine delegation (R) attends a meeting with representatives of Mali's Tuareg MNLA group as well as lead negotiator Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore on November 16, 2012 in Ouagadougou. AFP



New fighting Friday and a crackdown on women for not wearing veils by Islamist militants in the Malian city of Timbuktu marred peace moves by two of the groups controlling the desert north who said they were ready for peace talks with Bamako.

A Tuareg warlord said his National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) had launched an "offensive" to retake the key north-central region of Gao from Islamist rebels.

"Fighting broke out Friday morning near Ansango between fighters of MNLA and the MUJAO (the Al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) as part of an offensive aimed at recapturing the Gao region," Moussa Ag Assarid, a high-ranking member of the group in charge of communication, told AFP.

A Burkina security source said the MUJAO attacked some MNLA fighters and "took a lot of prisoners and two vehicles. There were some dead."

MUJAO had seized control of Gao in June following battles that claimed 35 lives, leaving the MNLA with no city base.

The assertion of an "offensive" to take Gao came the same day as a high-ranking MNLA delegation announced along with Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine that they were prepared to go into peace talks with the government in Bamako.

Meanwhile in Timbuktu, a local official said dozens of women were arrested Thursday by AQIM, a second non-indigenous Islamist group operating in the north along with the MUJAO, for not wearing a veil.

"The Islamists were going into homes to arrest unveiled women," he said.

A medical source said the women were being "imprisoned" at a disused bank, and that the AQIM militants vowed to continue the crackdown in the city they share with Ansar Dine and "that nothing can prevent them from doing so."

In Ouagadougou, the MNLA and Ansar Dine issued a joint statement saying they were "disposed to engage resolutely in a process of political dialogue under the aegis of ECOWAS mediation in order to find a negotiated, fair and lasting solution to the crisis."

The statement followed the talks with Compaore, who is Burkina Faso's president and lead negotiator for the Economic Community of West African States.

Burkina peace drive

The fresh drive by Mali's neighbour Burkina Faso to find a negotiated solution to the crisis, which has effectively split Mali in two, came as plans by regional bloc ECOWAS to send troops into Mali gathered pace.

The aim of the meeting was to get the two sides to hammer out a "joint platform" to present to Mali's transitional authorities.

This interim administration has been running the country since the leaders of a March military coup stepped back from power under international pressure in April.

Ansar Dine and the MNLA, both made up mainly of Malian ethnic Tuaregs, have occupied northern Mali along with the two mainly foreign radical Islamist groups since April.

Both AQIM and the less known but associated MUJAO have imposed a brutal form of sharia Islamic law, stoning unmarried couples, amputating thieves' hands and whipping drinkers and smokers.

Ansar Dine has made some conciliatory gestures to the secular MNLA, notably announcing this week that it would not insist on sharia law across Mali but just in its northeastern fiefdom of Kidal.

It has also said it would work to help rid the region of "terrorists" and "foreign movements", thereby distancing itself dramatically from AQIM and MUJAO.

Ansar Dine has also regained favour with the international community by renouncing its separatist ambitions.

The repositioning makes it increasingly likely that the ECOWAS intervention would focus on dislodging AQIM and MUJAO, in the hopes of eliminating a potential sanctuary for international extremist groups.

The planned force, approved by the African Union, will comprise some 3,300 mainly West African troops. The plan must go before the UN Security Council by the end of the month.

But questions still hang over the operation, particularly its exact composition and financing. It will also require logistical support from countries such as France and the United States.

The European Union also wants to support the effort. Its foreign ministers will meet Monday in Brussels to discuss sending a training mission made up of 200 to 400 European soldiers to Mali in January, according to French sources.

But the international community has made clear it favours a negotiated solution to the crisis.