BAMAKO/PARIS: The rebel group that recently seized control of Mali’s remote north in a maneuver that effectively partitioned the country in two announced a cease-fire Thursday, saying they had reached their military goal.
Moussa Ag Assarid, a spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, said the group was declaring the cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid to resume in the north, where shops were looted.
In Ivory Coast, the military chiefs of the nations bordering Mali met Thursday to hash out their plan for a military intervention. Deputy Ivorian Defense Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said military action is being considered both to reverse the coup that deposed Mali’s president last month, as well as to preserve Mali’s territorial integrity after the rebel advance in the north.
He instructed the army chiefs of the 15 nations in West Africa to draft a detailed plan, including how many troops each intends to send, how quickly they could ready them and what logistical means they plan to contribute.
In Paris, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France is ready to help African forces on a logistical level. The chief of staff of the French army, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, traveled Thursday to Burkina Faso to discuss details with the president.
However, Juppe ruled out any military intervention. He said there could only be a resolution to the Tuareg-led rebellion via political dialogue and called for regional cooperation to fight Al-Qaeda’s expansion in the area.
“There will not be a military solution with the Tuaregs. There must be a political solution,” Juppe said, adding that countries in the region had to begin talks to accomplish this.
The rebels launched their insurgency in January, saying they wanted to establish an independent Tuareg homeland in the north, known as the Azawad. They only succeeded in taking small towns until March 21, when disgruntled soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the distant capital of Bamako, overthrowing the democratically elected president.
In the confusion that followed the coup, the rebels launched a new offensive and succeeded in taking the capitals of the three main northern provinces, including Kidal, which fell last Friday, Gao Saturday and Timbuktu Sunday.
“The NMLA has reached the end of its military operations for the liberation of the territory of the Azawad,” said Assarid, speaking by telephone from Paris.
“Since the day before yesterday when our units reached Douentza which we consider to be the frontier of the Azawad,” he said, referring to a town some 600 kilometers from Bamako, “the military offensive is declared over.”
Assarid’s group is the largest rebel group involved in the offensive, but it is not the only one, and in the three main towns in the north, local officials say they cannot be sure which of the rebel armies has the upper hand.
Western observers have expressed concern over the presence of an Islamist faction called Ansar Dine, which planted its ominous black flag in all three of the provincial capitals. This week, the group announced it was imposing Shariah law in the ancient city of Timbuktu.
In a statement, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Thursday strongly condemned the forcible seizure of power in Mali.
“Mali has never experienced such a situation,” Mali’s U.N. Ambassador Omar Daou told the Security Council. “Our people are divided. Our country is threatened with partition.”
Once a diplomat assigned to Mali’s consulate in Saudi Arabia, the Islamist leader Ag Ghali used to be in regular contact with the United States Embassy in Bamako, according to diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.
For years, he was a Tuareg rebel leader and acted as a go-between when foreigners were kidnapped by a branch of Al-Qaeda based in the north of Mali. Although he is believed to be in touch with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, there is no evidence that he himself has taken part in terrorist activities.
The imposition of Shariah has worried analysts and country watchers. Besides Timbuktu, the Ansar Dine faction is accused of destroying bars in Gao and Kidal, and of forcing shopkeepers there to take down pictures of unveiled women.
Thursday, gunmen seized seven workers from Algeria’s consulate in Gao. Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci told the state news agency Thursday the group was forced to leave the consulate and taken to an unknown location.
He added that the government was mobilized to ensure their release as soon as possible.
Algeria has aggressively fought Islamic extremists on its own soil, including AQIM.