By Elizabeth Kendal
After the Malian government in Bamako was overthrown in a military coup on 22 March, the Tuareg nationalist-secularist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), with support from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists of Ansar Dine, exploited the chaos to advance and seize control of northern Mali. Since then, more than 300,000 people are estimated to have fled northern Mali.
See MALI: Christians flee as jihadists seize control of north
Religious Liberty Monitoring 11 April 2012
As long as the MNLA and Ansar Dine were fighting their common enemy (the Malian government) the alliance worked well. However, the mismatched forces proved unable to work together in government, for while the MNLA's goal is an independent state, Ansar Dine's goal is the imposition of Islamic Sharia law across the whole country. From the very beginning, despite the MNLA's leadership and elevated profile, the reality on the ground has always been that the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine is the stronger force and the one in control.
See MALI: Islamist's weapons seizure will greatly boost AQIM's striking power
Religious Liberty Monitoring 5 June 2012
ISLAMISTS OUST TUAREG-NATIONALIST MNLA
-- making the reality official.
On Tuesday 26 June, the Islamists seized control of Gao from the Tuareg MNLA. Twenty-six people were killed (mostly armed militants; mostly MNLA) and dozens wounded in fighting which involved the use of heavy weapons. MNLA political leader, Bilal Ag Cherif, was wounded. The al-Qaeda-linked Islamists took over buildings that had been occupied by the Tuaregs -- including their headquarters.
Claiming to have merely made a tactical retreat, the MNLA denies it has lost the fight. "Right now some MNLA units, stationed at the borders of Azawad, are coming back to completely rid the city of Gao of Islamist groups that are terrorizing the population," MNLA spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher said in a written statement.
Reuters reports that a Timbuktu resident said on Thursday (28 June) that MNLA fighters who had been stationed at the city's airport and port had now even abandoned those positions. (Confirmed by AP)
See Reuters: Islamists declare full control of Mali's north
By Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra
BAMAKO, Thu 28 June 2012
Details in Serge Daniel's account will give Bamako cause for concern, along with all the Christians, secularists and moderates who have fled there:
"The Islamists slowly moved their chessmen into place, first blocking the Tuareg from accessing the heavy weapons they had brought back from Libya and hidden in the AQIM-controlled mountains in north-eastern Mali, experts said.
"Then they won sympathy on the ground among the different tribes in the north, where Tuareg are a minority, by distributing basic goods and insisting they wanted to maintain the territorial integrity of Mali.
" 'When the mujahideen took Gao, they walked through the town brandishing the Malian flag, we liked that,' said Saly Toure who works for the Sahel Museum in Gao which has been closed since the beginning of the crisis.
"But to win 'the Islamists also played the corruption card wholeheartedly,' said an African diplomat based in Bamako, on condition of anonymity. 'A very influent leader of a citizens' association in Gao was "bought". Since then he turned his back on the Tuareg to support the Islamists.'
"He said the defeat of the MNLA would change the framework of negotiations with transition authorities who took over from the junta.
"Lacking money, abandoned by their supporters and riven by internal divisions [between French and Arabic speaking factions], the Tuareg rebels have been sorely weakened, and only hold small towns such as Gossi, Menaka and Anderamboukane.
See: Islamists rout Tuareg from their own rebellion in north Mali
By Serge Daniel (AFP) 28 June 2012
Al Jazeera has a more detailed report:
'Dozens killed' in northern Mali fighting
At least 20 people dead as Islamist and Tuareg groups battle for control of northern towns.
Al Jazeera 28 Jun 2012
NOTE: Al Jazeera reports there are at least two Islamist factions involved: the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) - which seized
parts of Gao - and Ansar Dine, which based itself in Timbuktu. Both
Islamist groups are believed to have links to al-Qaeda.