GAO, Mali (AFP) – Arab militants captured a village near Mali’s desert city of Timbuktu on Sunday, sources told AFP, as ethnic Tuareg rebels massed in a show of strength near another key northern city.
The Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) told AFP it had taken Ber, a settlement of around 9,000 people some 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Timbuktu, from an armed gang which had been “harassing our parents”.
“As of Sunday, we control the town,” Mohamed El Maouloud Ramadane, a spokesman for the MAA told AFP.
“We want to work with the French and Africans fighting against terrorism and drug traffickers,” he added.
A military source in Timbuktu confirmed the claim, adding: “The MAA effectively controls the city now. They launched an attack on a local armed group which has not been identified yet.”
France launched a military intervention in its former colony in January to prevent Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgents who had occupied the cities of the vast northern desert since April 2012 from progressing to the capital.
After recapturing the north, the 14-week-old offensive took the fight to the retreating Islamist insurgents’ toughest desert bastions and they are facing a guerrilla campaign that includes sudden raids, suicide attacks and land mines.
The vacuum left by the Islamists’ retreat has allowed Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to regain a foothold in the area, with Arab groups such as the MAA also staking a claim on the region.
A number of corroborating sources told AFP they had seen at least 200 armed ethnic Tuaregs from the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), a splinter group from the main Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), massed near the northeastern city of Kidal.
“The armed MIA men came close to Kidal. There are at least 200. They have been arriving at encampments since Friday. We have seen this,” an African military source in the area told AFP.
“The MIA is putting on a show of force. Approximately 200 of its armed militants came close to Kidal,” a resident in the area added.
Alghabass ag Intallah, the leader of the MIA, did not deny the claim, but told AFP he did not want to “say too much”.
“Yes, MIA youths and others have gathered. We want to know if Bamako wants peace or not,” he told AFP.
The separatist Tuareg rebels of the MNLA initially led the takeover of northern Mali last year in a bid to split the region from the south, where the government in Bamako has long marginalised their community.
Fighting alongside Ansar Dine and backed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, the Tuareg were then swiftly pushed aside and the alliance collapsed, with many MNLA fighters instead defecting to Islamist rebel groups.
The MNLA then came out in support of the French-led intervention, hoping the move could help it regain control of the north.