Rebels who seized control of Mali’s remote north effectively partitioning the country in two have announced a ceasefire, saying they had reached their military goal.
Moussa Ag Assarid, a spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, said the group was declaring the ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to resume in the north, where shops were looted.
In Ivory Coast, the military chiefs of the nations bordering Mali met to thrash out their plan for a military intervention.
Deputy Ivorian Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said military action is being considered both to reverse the coup that deposed Mali’s president last month, as well as to preserve Mali’s territorial integrity after the rebel advance in the north.
He instructed the army chiefs of the 15 nations in West Africa to draft a detailed plan, including how many troops each intends to send, how quickly they could ready them.
In Paris, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France is ready to help African forces on a logistical level. The chief of staff of the French army, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, travelled to Burkina Faso to discuss details with the president.
The rebels launched their insurgency in January, saying they wanted to establish an independent Tuareg homeland in the north, known as the Azawad.
They only succeeded in taking small towns until March 21, when disgruntled soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the distant capital of Bamako, overthrowing the democratically elected president.
In the confusion that followed the coup, the rebels launched a new offensive and succeeded in taking the capitals of the three main northern provinces, including Kidal, which fell last Friday, Gao on Saturday and Timbuktu on Sunday.
“The NMLA has reached the end of its military operations for the liberation of the territory of the Azawad,” said Assarid, speaking from Paris.
Assarid’s group is the largest rebel group involved in the offensive, but it is not the only one, and in the three main towns in the north, local officials say they cannot be sure which of the rebel armies has the upper hand.
Western observers have expressed concern over the presence of an Islamist faction called Ansar Dine, which planted its ominous black flag in all three of the provincial capitals. This week, the group announced it was imposing Sharia law in the ancient city of Timbuktu.
The mayor of Timbuktu said nearly all of the estimated 300 Christians based in the city fled after Ansar Dine’s spiritual chief Iyad Ag Ghali gave an interview on local radio outlining the tenets of Sharia law: Women are to be covered at all times, thieves will have their hands cut off and adulterers will be stoned.
“The problem for us is that we don’t know who is the master of our town,” said the mayor, Ousmane Halle, who explained that the Islamist faction had taken over the city’s military camp, while the secular rebels were stationed at the airport.
In a statement, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the forcible seizure of power in Mali.
“Mali has never experienced such a situation,” Mali’s UN Ambassador Omar Daou told the Security Council. “Our people are divided. Our country is threatened with partition.”
Once a diplomat assigned to Mali’s consulate in Saudi Arabia, the Islamist leader Ag Ghali used to be in regular contact with the United States Embassy in Bamako, according to diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.
For years, he was a Tuareg rebel leader and acted as a go-between when foreigners were kidnapped by a branch of al Qaida based in the north of Mali. Although he is believed to be in touch with al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, there is no evidence that he himself has taken part in terrorist activities.
Today, the Ansar Dine faction attacked the Algerian consulate in Gao and took hostage its employees, including the consul, according to an Algerian diplomat.