Tuareg-led rebels who seized the north of Mali in April have denied reports that they were abandoning their claims for a separate state after the rebellion was hijacked by Islamist fighters.
Moussa Ag Assarid, spokesperson for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), told Al Jazeera that the Tuareg group’s demands have not changed.
“The MNLA is not physically in every city in the Azawad, but that doesn’t mean we don’t exist … Azawad is a very large territory,” he said.
“We’re open to any collaboration against terrorism … we’re listening to the international community and are available for possible dialogue with Mali via mediator countries,” he said. But for now we haven’t seen will from Mali to sit at the negotiating table.”
“We’re currently working on a new military strategy to fight against terrorism in Azawad,” he added.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and its former Islamist allies routed government forces in the
West African country three months ago and took over a stretch of the Sahara larger than France.
But the MNLA’s declaration of independence for the state of Azawad has been largely ignored, and since then the movement has been sidelined by better-armed Islamist groups whose goal is to impose strict sharia Islamic law across the whole of Mali.
The MNLA and its former Islamist allies routed government forces in the West African country three months ago and took over a stretch of the Sahara larger than France.
Islamist armed groups including the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine have carried out public whippings of alleged adulterers in the north and destroyed UNESCO-listed shrines of local saints in the ancient town of Timbuktu, arguing such worship was un-Islamic.
Contacted by telephone in Timbuktu, Ansar Dine spokesperson Sanda Ould Boumana said he was not aware of any change in the MNLA position, but added: “What I can tell you is that it is us who control the three regions of the north.”
Gold and cotton-producing Mali has been the first country in the region to be plunged into chaos as an indirect result of
last year’s civil war in Libya, from which heavy arms and fighters have spilled south since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
In Mali’s case that bolstered the rebellion, prompting a March 22 coup d’etat by government soldiers complaining they
lacked proper weapons to fight back.
But the coup backfired spectacularly as rebels took it as a cue to make lightning advances through northern Mali in the days that followed.
Moves to launch a foreign military intervention have been held back by divisions among Mali’s neighbours and a lack of
proper government in Mali, whose caretaker civilian prime minister remains in Paris after being attacked by protesters in
Laurent Fabius, foreign minister of former colonial power France, said this week that foreign intervention was probable
“at one moment or another”.
An African Union summit said on Friday efforts were underway to find a political solution and that military action to take
back the north was a last resort.
The MNLA’s Assaleh called on foreign powers to act faster to launch military action and reaffirmed that MNLA fighters – who have been forced out of major northern towns such as Gao and Timbuktu – would return to tackle the Islamists.
“We will make war against the Islamists to the very last soldier. No matter how well they are armed, they are no match
for our will,” he said.
This story has been amended after the MNLA informed Al Jazeera that agency reports that it had abandoned its secessionist claims were incorrect.
Additional reporting from Omar Dabouz.