- - Tuesday, March 19, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The removal of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power in 2011 has given rise to well-armed Islamist militants in North Africa and in Mali.

Tuareg mercenaries in Gadhafi’s army returned to Mali with large caches of weapons that fell into the hands of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg separatist group, and Ansar Dine, extremists linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In January 2012, scores of Malian soldiers were slaughtered by heavily armed Islamists in a military camp near the town of Kidal. Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure weakly supported efforts to subdue the extremists, and the military overthrew the government in March 2012.

In the ensuing chaos, the Islamists seized control of large swaths of northern Mali.

On Jan. 10, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore called on France — the West African country’s former colonial ruler — to help rid Mali of the Islamists, who had established Shariah law in the northern part of the nation.

French President Francois Hollande immediately sent troops from neighboring Chad to underpin the Malian military.

“France is fighting against those in Mali whom it had once armed in Libya against [Gadhafi],” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told The New York Times.

However, France allowed MNLA and Chadian soldiers to drive the Islamists from Kidal, a former stronghold. Malian soldiers were excluded from the action for fear of reprisals against MNLA.

Malian government leaders were stymied by the French move to prevent the Malian military from helping free Kidal of the Islamists. Further tensions occurred in Menaka, where Islamists were driven out and MNLA quickly took over the town.

MNLA has told the Malian government it would not negotiate on territorial unification. Meanwhile, its leaders have held talks with the French, claiming they have support of the nomadic Tuareg minority, who feel disenfranchised and fear reprisals by Malian soldiers.

MNLA also has offered to help find the kidnapped French workers from the Areva S.A. uranium mine in neighboring Niger, still thought to be held in Kidal.

Several Malian leaders have told me that they believe France has shown support for a separate Tuareg homeland in the north since independence in 1960. But Mali’s government always has opted to maintain its territorial integrity.

Before the coup, Mali had been negotiating with several parties for mineral exploration rights. Geologic reports indicate there could be large uranium deposits in Mali’s northern region, adjacent to Niger.

MNLA today controls several towns near those mineralized zones, which could become a problem for the Malian government.

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