Two rebel groups that seized control of the northern half of Mali have agreed to work together to create an independent Islamic state on the territory they occupy.
Alghabass Ag Intalla, one of the leaders of Ansar Dine, which is fighting to create an Islamic state, said his movement was joining the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, a secular rebel group led by Tuareg separatists.
They signed the agreement in the northern town of Gao last night and celebratory gunfire rang out there and in Timbuktu, another town under their control, as fighters heard the news.
“I have just signed an accord that will see an independent and Islamic state where we have Islamic law,” Mr Ag Intalla said.
It is one more worrying development for Mali because Ansar Dine is known to have ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the al Qaida affiliate in Africa responsible for dozens of suicide attacks as well as the kidnappings of foreigners, some of whom were later executed.
The two groups took over the north of Mali, an area the size of France, at the end of March, forcing Malian government troops to flee south. Until now the two had disagreed because Ansar Dine wants to impose Shariah law in the area they occupy.
Ansar Dine had also previously said it was opposed to the NMLA objective of creating an independent homeland for Mali’s Tuaregs, a goal it now says it is backing.
During the rebel advance in March, residents said there were visible turf wars with the fighters occupying different areas of the cities under their control.
In Timbuktu, the last major town in the north to fall to the rebels, the NMLA took over the airport, located on the outskirts of town, while Ansar Dine installed itself in the military camp at the centre of the fabled city.
The two have different rebel flags, and witnesses reported seeing one group raise its flag over an administrative building, like the governor’s residence, only for the second group to show up, and replace it with their own flag.
The agreement suggests that both sides have made a major concession in talks that have been going on intermittently for weeks. The agreement will likely increase the chance of the groups reaching their goal and they can now combine fighters.
The north of Mali fell after a coup d’etat in the capital Bamako on March 21 left government forces disorganised and lacking motivation to fight.
The transitional government of Mali says it wants to take back the north, but so far the factions in Bamako have been too busy arguing over who is going to lead the transition to focus their attention of the issue of the north.