BAMAKO, Mali — Mali’s Tuareg rebels, who have seized control of the country’s north in the aftermath of a military coup in the capital, declared the independence Friday of what they called their Azawad nation.
“We, the people of the Azawad,” they said on the rebel Web site, “proclaim the irrevocable independence of the state of the Azawad starting from this day, Friday, April 6, 2012.”
The military chiefs of 13 of Mali’s neighbors met Thursday in Ivory Coast to hash out plans for a military intervention to push back the rebels and restore constitutional rule after a military coup last month ousted the country’s elected leader.
France, which earlier said it would offer logistical support for a military invasion, said Friday that it does not recognize the new Tuareg state. The European Union concurred.
The traditionally nomadic Tuareg people have fought for independence for the northern half of Mali since at least 1958, when Tuareg elders asked their French colonial rulers to carve out a separate homeland. Instead, the north, where the lighter-skinned Tuaregs live, was made part of the same country as the south.
The Tuaregs accuse the southerners of marginalizing the north and concentrating development in the south. They fought numerous rebellions attempting to wrestle the north free, but it wasn’t until the March 21 coup in Bamako that they were able to make significant gains. In a three-day period last week, their fighters seized the three largest cities in the north — Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu — as soldiers retreated.
The rebels’ independence declaration cited 50 years of misrule by the south and was issued by the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, whose army is headed by a Tuareg commander who fought in the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s military.
The group is secular, and its stated aim is creating Azawad. However, it was helped by an Islamist faction, Ansar Dine, which abides by the extreme Salafist reading of the Koran. In all three of the north’s major cities, residents say they do not know which of the two factions has the upper hand.
Foreign governments are concerned that the Islamist faction is providing cover for al-Qaeda’s North African branch, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.