- Associated Press - Thursday, April 5, 2012

BAMAKO, MALI — 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 President Blaise Compaore.

The rebels launched their insurgency in January, saying they wanted to establish an independent ethnic-Tuareg homeland in the north, known as Azawad. They succeeded only 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 on Saturday and Timbuktu on Sunday.

“The NMLA has reached the end of its military operations for the liberation of the territory of the Azawad,” said Mr. Assarid, speaking by telephone from Paris.

Mr. Assarid’s group is the largest rebel force involved in the offensive. 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.

The mayor of Timbuktu said nearly all of the estimated 300 Christians based in the city fled, after Ansar Dine’s spiritual chief Iyad Ag Ghali gave an interview on local radio outlining the tenets of Shariah law. Women are to be covered at all times, thieves will have their hands cut off and adulterers will be stoned, he said.