Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Mali News Update: Government, Rebels Agree to Respect 'National Unity'

Mali government, rebels agree to respect 'national unity'

(AFP)--OUAGADOUGOU — The Malian government and two rebel groups agreed Tuesday to respect Mali's "national unity" as they held their first talks to try to end the crisis that has split the west African country in two.

Delegations from the government, the Islamist Ansar Dine and the Tuareg MNLA agreed "on the respect for Mali's national unity and territorial integrity," and "on the rejection of any form of extremism and terrorism," they said in a statement.

December 04, 2012

Mali Government Meets with Key Rebel Groups

by VOA News

Mali is holding its first direct talks with two rebel groups that seized control in the country's north, in a bid to resolve the country's political crisis.

Top government officials gathered Tuesday for the preliminary talks with delegates from the MNLA Tuareg separatist group and the radical Islamist group Ansar Dine. The meeting is being hosted by Burkina Faso.

Mali was once considered one of West Africa's most stable countries, but it plunged into chaos after soldiers overthrew the government in March. MNLA and Ansar Dine rebels took control of the north soon after. Later, Ansar Dine and allied Islamist groups seized full control of the territory from the MNLA.

The U.N. Security Council is weighing a plan backed by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to send 3,300 troops into northern Mali. And Burkina Faso officials say military action against the Islamist militants in the north remains an option, despite the talks.

In another development, the top U.S. military commander in Africa said al-Qaida and other extremists are strengthening their hold on northern Mali, but cautioned against what he calls "premature" military intervention.

General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. African Command, told a forum in Washington Monday that he thinks any action launched today would not be successful and would ultimately worsen current conditions. Ham promoted the use of negotiations before military intervention.

Ham backed an African-led solution in Mali, highlighting the recent successes of African Union forces and Somali soldiers in recapturing control of parts of Somalia from al-Shabab militants.

Ham added he is most worried about the growing collaboration among violent extremist groups, saying those links are the biggest threat to regional stability. Ham stated that the U.S. has seen "clear indications" of collaboration, including reports that the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram is receiving money, and probably training and explosives from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Ham noted that the relationship between Boko Haram and AQIM one that "goes both ways," with likely instances of Boko Haram militants traveling to training camps in northern Mali.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

African Union and Chad press UN over Mali force

(AFP)--N'DJAMENA — The acting head of the African Union and the president of Chad issued a joint call on Tuesday for the United Nations to rapidly authorise an intervention force for Islamist-held northern Mali.

The call came after a meeting between Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi, acting head of the African Union, his Chad counterpart Idriss Deby as well as Mali's Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, the Chadian foreign ministry said.

Boni Yayi and Deby appealed to the UN to "authorise urgently the deployment of the international force in Mali" and "call on the international community to use all legal means to find a solution".

The regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has said it is ready to deploy 3,300 men to try to oust the armed Islamists from northern Mali once it has UN approval.

The Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels seized the vast northern region of Mali in the chaotic aftermath of a coup in Bamako in March but the Islamists have since ousted the Tuareg.

Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, who is mediating in the crisis, was due Tuesday to hold his first meetings with envoys from Bamako and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) as well as Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA).

Leaders of 15 ECOWAS nations last month adopted a plan to wrest back control of northern Mali and backed the sending of an international force of 3,300 troops for one year.

"It's up to the Malians to tell us as clearly as possible what kind of support they expect from Africa, beyond what has been done by ECOWAS, and what kind of contribution they expect of Chad," Deby told reporters Tuesday.

December 3, 2012, 2:00 PM

Head of Mali terror group quits al Qaeda

BAMAKO, Mali An Algerian-born jihadist who heads one of the most powerful and feared cells of al Qaeda's North African branch has decided to leave the al Qaeda franchise in order to create a movement spanning the entire Sahara desert, said one of his close associates and a local official who had been briefed on the matter on Monday.

Moktar Belmoktar, formerly the head of a cell of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is one of the most prolific kidnappers operating in Mali's lawless north. He is linked to the abduction of a group of tourists in 2003 in southern Algeria, as well as the top United Nations diplomat in Niger, Robert Fowler, who was grabbed on the side of a road in 2008.

The deputy mayor of a town in the Timbuktu region of northern Mali, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety, confirmed that AQIM "katiba," or cell, leader Belmoktar had left the al Qaeda franchise. The information was confirmed by Oumar Ould Hamaha, an associate of Belmoktar's, who was reached by telephone at an undisclosed location in northern Mali.

"It's true," said Hamaha. "It's so that we can better operate in the field that we have left this group which is tied to the 'Maghreb' appellation. We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso."

Hamaha said, however, that while he and Belmoktar have left the North African branch, they remain under the orders of al Qaeda central.

AQIM evolved from an Algerian jihadist group, which was pushed by security forces south across the border into Mali in 2003. The group appeared to be floundering, losing members and on the run, until it sealed a deal with al Qaeda's central command, becoming the terror franchise's branch in the Maghreb region of Africa, a term that refers to North African countries including Algeria.

For most of its existence though, AQIM's main base of operation has been inside Mali, which is not a Maghrebian country. Until this spring, the cells operated in the country's deserts, in dense forests and in a system of subterranean caves that recall the terrain of Afghanistan.

Then in April, following a coup in Mali's capital, a mixture of rebel groups including AQIM seized Mali's northern half, giving them de facto control over the cities and allowing them to operate openly.

The announcement indicates that al Qaeda is setting its sights on a larger zone of operation. So far AQIM has conducted raids into Mauritania and Niger, but has not been able to establish long-term bases there. And the terror franchise has never operated in Chad, according to security experts.

In New York this month, diplomats are meeting to discuss plans for a military intervention in order to take back northern Mali. United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has described the presence of these terror groups in northern Mali as a "powder keg."

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