Tuaregs wait for other jackboot to drop...
It is a sign of just how far things have deteriorated in Mali that weeks after Tuareg rebels seized the northern half of the country—with its precious uranium deposits—no move has been made by the central government to try to take it back. What happened to the multinational intervention that was supposedly being planned? Some possible explanations for the delay: 1. They are waiting for the French elections to be over with, and to see if Paris will be as eager for military action after Sarkozy's now seemingly inevitable defeat; 2. They are waiting for the MNLA to consolidate greater control of the territory, sparing the central government, France and ECOWAS the trouble of putting down the Islamists; 3. The central government doesn't really exist.
This last thesis is loaned credibility by the most recent reports. After offering us virtually nothing on Mali since the Tuaregs declared independence two weeks ago, Reuters now informs us (emphasis added):
About 200 soldiers claiming to be government loyalists have moved back into northern Mali saying they will fight to take it back from Tuareg-led separatist and Islamist rebels that routed the army across the region three weeks ago... [A] Reuters witness saw as many as 200 soldiers and dozens of vehicles under the command of Colonel El Hadj Gamou appear in the town of Lebezanga, near the border with Niger. Gamou, a Tuareg, for weeks led Bamako's efforts to repel rebels before saying earlier this month he had joined the rebel ranks, only to reappear in Niger last week to announce he was in fact ready to lead a counter-attack with 500 men.
Could this be any murkier? If Mali still has a functioning army, what is with this "claiming to be government loyalists" jazz? And if Col. Gamou is acting under the orders of the junta in Bamako, why is he attacking from Niger's territory? And 200 soldiers is a pathetic number to try to take a vast desert territory controlled by Tuareg fighters (and other factions) that must number in the thousands. This sounds like a tacit admission that the Malian state has collapsed. Which means that when the intervention does come, it is likely to be even bigger and messier than we had anticipated...
In another very bad sign, Reuters (dateline Bamako, not Timbuktu) tells us:
The troop movement just inside Mali's eastern border with Niger came as witnesses said gunmen in rebel-held Timbuktu, near the northwestern border with Mauritania, opened fire to disperse residents protesting against the occupation of their town.
It was the first reported sign of local resistance to rebels in Mali's remote north, which experts say has become a safe haven for al Qaeda cells and smugglers.
Actually, Timbuktu is about 300 kilometers from the Mauritanian border (look at a map), and the "safe haven for al-Qaeda" is just ritual filler that is de rigueur in any wire service account from the region. But if the MNLA (or some Islamist faction) is firing on protesters, the world needs to know more about it. The MNLA website has posted no new communiques since April 16, and that was just more of the self-congratulatory crowing about how their "brave freedom fighters" have liberated Azawad.
In the only other wire service report out of Mali in recent days, AFP tells us that a Swiss woman who had been abducted in Timbuktu by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was counter-abducted by the rival Islamist faction Ansar Dine, who intend to free her. An anonymous source is quoted saying that AQIM "sub-contractors" were ambushed by Ansar Dine fighters, who seized the captive.
We'd sure love to know what is going on here. A week ago we just weren't sure who controlled Mali's north. Now we aren't sure who controls the south either...
See our last post on the struggle in Mali.