PARIS: Islamists played a part in the Tuareg rebellion that captured northern Mali in a lightning advance, but experts say Al-Qaeda's local franchise can not expect to benefit greatly from the revolt.
The ethnic rebels have clearly been the big winners in the recent fighting, taking advantage of a power vacuum that emerged after soldiers in the capital Bamako toppled Mali's democratically elected leader on March 22.
"For the moment, this is all about the rise of the Tuaregs. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is only a secondary player," said Dominique Thomas of the EHESS social sciences school in Paris.
The biggest rebel group is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which denies any links with AQIM, and wants independence for a region it calls Azawad and considers the Tuaregs' homeland.
It has said it wants to kick Al-Qaeda fighters out of the region in the wake of the most tumultuous events to have gripped the landlocked desert country since it got independence from France in 1960.
But the reality is less clear cut.
"There are links between AQIM and the rebels, but they are not necessarily central," said Thomas, noting that both groups profited from the collapse last year of Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi's regime.
Mali's rebellion began in January after Tuareg fighters who had been in Kadhafi's militias returned to their homeland, well-trained and armed with plenty of heavy weaponry from their Libyan barracks.
AQIM, whose members range over a vast swathe of the Sahara that takes in parts of Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, is involved in terror attacks, kidnappings of Westerners and various types of trafficking.
It was also able to recruit new members and stock up on the weapons that flooded the region in the wake of Kadhafi's downfall, say observers, who note that the group has always sought to cultivate Tuareg support.
"In order to set up in the region, to benefit from sanctuary there, the jihadists had to develop ties for protection with the various Tuareg groups," said Thomas of the EHESS.
Within AQIM, one fighting unit is widely known to be led by a Tuareg.
But Pierre Boilley, a Tuareg specialist at Paris 1 University, said the Tuareg play only a minor role within the Al-Qaeda group and that most left to join the MNLA when the rebellion began in January.
"Since then, several skirmishes between the MNLA and AQIM have taken place," he said.
Relations between AQIM and a smaller Tuareg rebel group, the Islamist Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith, in Arabic), are more complex.
Ansar Dine, which has up to 300 fighters compared to the MNLA's 2,000 to 3,000, is not seeking a separate state but wants to introduce sharia, or Islamic law, across the whole country, which is mostly Muslim.
It could seek to further its aims in alliance with AQIM, observers say.
Its leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, a figurehead of the Tuareg revolt in the 1990s, has long been a Salafist, following a strict form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia.
"He sought to approach the MNLA but got a scathing refusal because of his religious positions," said Boilley.
Another Al-Qaeda-linked group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, has said it too took part in the rebel advance that swept across northern Mali.
The group, which has claimed responsibility for the kidnap of three Europeans in Algeria, split from AQIM last year but is "not in competition with AQIM," said Thomas of the EHESS.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe alleged Monday that "it appears that an extreme Islamist-jihadist faction is taking the upper hand among the different Tuareg factions."
But Boilley said there was no evidence that the MNLA was being controlled by Islamists, and that it was in control of the major towns captured by the rebels, evern if Ansar Dine had taken part in some offensives.
"The MNLA will no doubt first seek to consolidate its positions but we can't rule out that it may in the medium term launch an offensive against AQIM," he said.