Rebels from a secular Tuareg faction and a splinter group of the Ansar Dine Islamists say they control Kidal, the last major northern Malian city under rebel control. But can the groups reach a negotiated settlement and can they be trusted?
With French and Malian troops seizing control of Timbuktu on Monday, all eyes are now on Kidal, the last of northern Mali’s three major cities still under rebel control.
Click on map to enlarge
A strategic northeastern Malian city situated not far from the Algerian border, Kidal was the first city to fall to Islamist militants last year and it has remained a no-go zone for the international community over the past 10 months.
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 on Monday, a spokesman for the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) – which describes itself as a secular Tuareg secessionist movement – said the group currently controls Kidal.
"We entered Kidal Monday morning, we placed checkpoints at all entrances and have divided the neighbourhoods,” said Moussa ag Acharatoumane, a senior MNLA official.
But in a sign of the shifting allegiances among rebel groups in northern Mali, a splinter group that broke away from the Ansar Dine Islamists said it also controls Kidal and is working with the MNLA to secure the northern Malian city.
In an interview with AFP, MIA rebel Mohamed Ag Aharib said, "Currently in Kidal, there are fighters from the MNLA and MIA.”
The MIA (Islamic Movement of Azawad) split from the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine group last week, days after the January 11 launch of the French-led military intervention in Mali.
In interviews with the press, Alghabass Ag Intallah – a former senior Ansar Dine rebel – said he formed the new group to disassociate themselves from al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). He also said his group would be willing to seek a negotiated solution to Mali’s conflict.
With access to the remote northern Malian city blocked to international journalists, reports of the MNLA-MIA control of Kidal have been hard to verify. When contacted by FRANCE 24, a French Defense Ministry spokesman declined to comment on “ongoing operations”.
Shifting groups and power dynamics in northern Mali
Reports of a split within Ansar Dine ranks and the subsequent joining of forces of the splinter MIA and MNLA highlight the precarious political situation that continues to dog the Malian government - and the international community - even as the military intervention sweeps through major northern Malian cities.
In June 2012, MNLA and Ansar Dine officials announced a merger only to disassociate themselves shortly after the merger announcement.
The on-again, off-again marriage between Ansar Dine and MNLA was a testament to the shifting power dynamics between northern Mali’s myriad rebel groups.
Shortly after the March 22, 2012, military coup which ousted Mali’s democratically elected president and weakened the armed forces, the MNLA seized the initiative to declare a breakaway Tuareg “republic” in northern Mali.
But the MNLA was soon overpowered by the superior firepower of Ansar Dine under their charismatic leader, Iyad Ag Ghali.
Ag Ghali, a longtime player on the Malian political scene, is a native of Kidal and it is believed that the former Malian-diplomat-turned Islamist militant controlled Kidal over the past ten months.
Following the French-led military intervention, the Islamists are believed to have deserted Kidal and fled into the desert. According to a Malian security source quoted by AFP, Ag Ghali and Abou Zeid, a senior AQIM leader, are currently hiding in the mountains around the region, where Islamist positions were bombed by French aircraft on Saturday.
Hurdles confront hopes of a negotiated settlement
But the departure of Islamists from Kidal does not necessarily mean negotiations with the splinter MIA and the Tuareg separatist MNLA could be easy.
Malian officials in Bamako, the capital, are still seething from last year’s MNLA’s secessionist declaration, which saw the Western African nation descend into a perfect storm of woes.
For its part, the MNLA has little sympathy for the Malian military. In an interview with the French daily Le Figaro on Monday, an MNLA spokesman said, "We are not asking for the departure of the French army, we approved of the launch of the French targeted strikes. But we don’t approve when it brings the Malian army in our territory, where it has already committed abuses."
Date created : 2013-01-28