Suspected Islamists seize Algerian mission in Mali; France rejects military options

Mali’s junta leader appealed on Friday for foreign help to secure the West African country against a separatist Tuareg uprising after the rebels entered the strategic northern town of Kidal. (Reuters)

Fears mounted Thursday that al-Qaeda-linked Islamists were turning Mali into a rogue state despite the announcement by Tuareg rebels that their 10-week military offensive was complete.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called for a political solution to deal with a Tuareg-led rebellion in the north of Mali, and said military means would not be used.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. (Reuters)

“There will not be a military solution with the Tuaregs. There needs to be a political solution,” Juppe told journalists, adding that countries in the region had to work together to accomplish this, according to Reuters.

Tuareg rebels were emboldened by the Mar. 22 coup in once-stable Mali to seize half the country in a quest for a northern homeland. They have been joined by Islamists bent on imposing sharia across the Muslim state.

As the Tuareg trumpeted the success of a decades-old struggle to “liberate” their homeland, their fundamentalist comrades-turned-rivals began imposing sharia in northern Mali, also leaving an embattled junta looking very vulnerable in Bamako.

The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday called for an immediate ceasefire but proposed no firm action to reverse a sequence that has seen a country hailed as a democratic success story descend into chaos in barely two weeks, according to AFP.

Seizure of Algerian consulate in northern Mali

Armed Islamists occupied the Algerian consulate in Gao in north-eastern Mali, arresting diplomats and raising their black flag at the building, several witnesses told AFP on Thursday.

“I am currently in front of the Algerian consulate in district four in Gao. Armed Islamists have entered the consulate, arrested the diplomats and staff and taken down the Algerian flag to put up their own,” one witness told AFP in Bamako by telephone.

He said the Islamists “are also around the consulate, armed. Most of them have black skin.”

A second witness confirmed the information: “I am next to the Algerian consulate, at the moment I can see black men, armed, around the consulate and inside. They have replaced the Algerian flag with a black flag with Arabic writing.”

“I saw the Salafists’ flag in place of the Algerian flag at the consulate but at the consul's house the Algerian flag is still up,” said a third.

The town of Gao, which housed the regional military headquarters, was seized on Saturday by Tuareg and Islamists linked to al-Qaeda splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

With the town split between the various rebel groups, lawlessness has been rife with humanitarian workers and locals telling of the widespread looting of government and private buildings, and theft of residents' cars.

The military rulers in Bamako who seized power two weeks ago have accused the rebels in Gao of kidnapping and raping women and girls.

U.S. fears

The United States, which had grown increasingly concerned since the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya scattered weapons across the region, engaged talks with Algeria, the most powerful of Mali’s seven neighbors.

Algerian President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika met General Carter Ham, who heads the U.S. Command for Africa (AFRICOM) in Algiers on Wednesday.

They had in-depth talks on the security situation in Mali, Carter told the Algerian news agency.

Military cooperation and anti-terrorism coordination were also discussed during the talks, attended by several other top officials from both sides, including Washington’s top Africa diplomat Johnnie Carson.

Three of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) top leaders, all of them Algerians, were spotted in the Malian city of Timbuktu in talks with Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former Tuareg rebel who recently founded the Islamist group Ansar Dine.

The group, whose name means “Defenders of Faith” in Arabic, has ordered women to wear headscarves and skirts and dresses that comply with Islamic dress, while threatening to cut off the hands of thieves in the city, once known as the “pearl of the desert” and once the jewel in Mali’s burgeoning tourism industry.

The junta in Bamako and local residents have alleged that women were being kidnapped and raped by the city’s new masters.

Former colonial power France has voiced fears that while the Tuaregs’ territorial claims could be addressed through negotiation, the Islamist advance is a threat to the entire region.

Residents and security sources said the Islamists have chased the Tuareg group Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) out of Timbuktu, burning their flag and replacing it with their black jihad flag.

“Ansar Dine has allowed MNLA elements to stay behind at the airport” just outside the town, a security source said. A hotelier said there were less than 20 Tuareg rebels stationed there.

But on their website, the group said it was “holding its position in the face of all these mafia networks and distances itself from Ansar Dine and others who rise up on the path to the liberation of Azawad.”

The U.N. hammered out a joint statement Wednesday calling for an immediate ceasefire in Mali, prompting the MNLA to declare an end to military operations “after the complete liberation of the Azawad territory.”

The world body also condemned the coup by a group of low-ranking army officers who took control of the capital Bamako on Mar. 22 and ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure just weeks before he was due to step down.

The junta, which came to power in what some observers have described as “an accidental coup,” was struggling to assert its authority.

The new military rulers’ efforts to restore order fell apart as a coalition of some 50 political parties and 100 civil society organizations refused to take part in a proposed national meeting on the country’s future.

The junta, which had planned the meeting for Thursday, was quickly forced to postpone it.

The mutineers had justified their coup by arguing that Toure’s regime had failed to effectively tackle the Tuareg uprising but the rebels have since then conquered a chunk of territory larger than France virtually unopposed.

In an interview with the French dailies Le Monde and Liberation published Thursday, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo begged Western powers to help him counter the Islamist push in the north.

“"If the great powers are able to cross oceans to battle fundamentalist structures in Afghanistan, what’s stopping them coming to us? Our committee wants the best for the country,” he said.

The crisis precipitated by Sanogo’s coup also sparked mounting concern that a massive regional humanitarian emergency fueled by conflict and drought was developing.

More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes since the Tuareg rebels launched their offensive on Jan. 17.

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