Salafist flag hoisted in Algeria consulate in north Mali
Mali's Tuareg rebels declared independence Friday in the north, splitting the coup-wracked country in two, as warnings rang out of a humanitarian disaster in what was once considered Africa's democratic success story.
Alarmed by the sudden collapse of the west African nation, now divided into a rebel-controlled north and junta-controlled south two weeks after a coup, the international community grappled for a response.
And humanitarian groups warned of a looming catastrophe as hundreds of thousands of people flee the unrest and rebels loot food and medicine supplies across an arid region already facing food shortages.
The Tuareg rebels early Friday declared the independence of Mali's north, a desert homeland they call Azawad for which they had been waging rebellions over decades, this latest one fuelled by a hemorrhaging of weapons from Libya following Moamer Gathafi's downfall.
"We solemnly proclaim the independence of Azawad as from today," Mossa Ag Attaher, a spokesman for Mali's National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), said on France 24 television, confirming a statement on the group's website.
He said the group, which captured northern Mali with Islamist groups over the past two weeks following a coup in the capital Bamako, would respect "the borders with other states" and would halt all military operations.
But their hold on the desert looked tenuous as their Islamist comrades-turned-rebels imposed Islamic sharia law and kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats in the northeast.
Algeria's foreign ministry said an unidentified group had attacked its consulate in the town of Gao and kidnapped the consul and six staff members.
Witnesses said the raiders hoisted the black Salafist flag that has been the emblem of Islamist rebels who have overrun Timbuktu and other northern cities.
MNLA's Ag Attaher said the Gao kidnapping was "deplorable" and his group had been against it but finally went along with the move so as to spare the diplomats' lives.
Humanitarian groups Oxfam and World Vision said they were worried about crippling sanctions imposed on Mali, where more than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes in the north, after the coup by regional grouping ECOWAS.
"If maintained as they are for more than even a few days, sanctions by ECOWAS could further undermine the efforts to help the 3.5 million Malians already affected by a serious food crisis," said Oxfam country director Eric Mamboue.
The dire situation in Mali stems from a March 22 coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo and a small group of low-ranking soldiers who ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure just weeks before he was due to step down after an election.
The troops justified their takeover by arguing Toure's regime had failed to tackle the Tuareg uprising, but rebels exploited the power vacuum and swept Mali's north.
The junta, which at times told the Malian army not to resist the offensive, on Thursday called on northern Mali residents to resist the "invaders" themselves.
ECOWAS army chiefs on Thursday drew up a "mandate" for a 2,000-strong force that could be sent into a section of Mali the size of France that is now in Tuareg separatist and Islamist hands.
However, an ECOWAS official said after a 12-hour meeting in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan that the military plan still needed approval from regional heads of state.
In the Mali capital Bamako on Thursday, regional mediator Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole said an announcement in "the right direction" was expected from coup leader Sanogo and that sanctions could be lifted soon.
Observers say the West has an obligation to intervene after its role in ousting Libyan dictator Gathafi forced hundreds of well-armed Tuareg fighters to flee home to Mali, overwhelming its army and giving other outlaws a means to serve their own interests.
"The factor that unleashed all of this is the Western intervention in Libya," said Eric Denece, director of the French think-tank CF2R.
Witnesses on the ground and observers say that the real new masters of Mali's northern desert are not the Tuareg nomads but the Ansar Dine led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, which has connections with the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
"From what we know, the MNLA is in charge of nothing at the moment ... it is Iyad who is the strongest and he is with AQIM," a Malian military source said.
Ansar Dine, "Defenders of Faith" in Arabic, has ordered women to wear headscarves and threatened to cut off the hands of thieves in the ancient city of Timbuktu, once the jewel in Mali's tourism industry.
The UN Security Council this week called for an immediate ceasefire but proposed no firm action as the two-week-old junta floundered.