BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's Tuareg rebels, who have seized control of the country's north in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup, declared independence early Friday of the Azawad nation.
"We, the people of the Azawad," they said in a statement published on the rebel website, "proclaim the irrevocable independence of the state of the Azawad starting from this day, Friday, April 6, 2012."
The military heads of the nation's bordering Mali met Thursday in Ivory Coast to start hashing out plans for a military intervention in order to restore constitutional rule and push back the rebels in the north.
The traditionally nomadic Tuareg people have been fighting for independence for the northern half of Mali since at least 1958, when Tuareg elders wrote a letter addressed to the French president asking their colonial rulers to carve out a separate homeland for the Tuareg people. Instead the north, where the lighter-skinned Tuareg people live, was made part of the same country as the south, where the dark-skinned ethnic groups controlled the capital and the nation's finances.
The Tuaregs fought numerous rebellions, but it wasn't until a March 21 coup in the distant capital of Bamako toppled the nation's elected government that the fighters were able to make significant gains. In a three-day period last weekend they seized the three largest cities in the north, as soldiers dumped their uniforms and retreated.
Their independence declaration cited 50 years of misrule by the country's southern-based administration and was issued by the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, whose army is led by a Tuareg colonel who fought in the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's military.
The group is secular and its stated aim is creating a homeland for the Tuareg people. However, they were helped by an Islamist faction, Ansar Dine, which is now attempting to apply Sharia law to Mali's moderate north, including in the fabled tourist destination of Timbuktu.
The declaration of independence appears to have even taken the NMLA's leadership by surprise. Reached by telephone in Paris, Hama Ag Sid'Ahmed, one of the spokesman of the group as well as the head of external relations for the rebels, said that he considered the move "premature."
"Yes, it's true that I think it's premature — premature to speak of this right now, without a consultation and an understanding with some of the actors that are very active on the local level, and with which we need to work, and we need to find common objectives, common strategies," he said, appearing to refer to Ansar Dine.
In all three of the major cities in the north, residents say they do not know which of the two factions has the upper hand. In Timbuktu, the NMLA first entered the town and put up their flag at the governor's office. They then retreated from the downtown section of Timbuktu, and set up their base at the airport just outside of town.
Residents say that Ansar Dine arrived later, and when they drove by the governor's residence, they stopped to pull down the NMLA flag, according to the head of the local radio station Kader Kalil.
Associated Press writer Martin Vogl in Bamako, Mali and Michelle Faul in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS day in 1st paragraph to Friday.)