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Plans for a breakaway Tuareg state in northern Mali unraveled when a rift emerged Tuesday over Islamic law between the two main rebel groups there, only two days after they merged.
“We have refused to approve the final statement because it is different from the protocol agreement which we have signed,” said Ibrahim Assaley, a member of the Tuareg rebel National Liberation Front of Azawad (FNLA).
Moussa Ag Asherif, a top member of Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), confirmed the impasse which came just 48
hours after the two groups declared the independent Islamic state of Azawad in northern Mali.
Regional and Western leaders have long feared a breakaway state in Mali's restive north could become Al-Qaeda's main safe haven.
A draft of the statement by Ansar Dine spoke of applying “pure and hard” Sharia, or Islamic law, and banning non-Muslim humanitarian groups from the area, Assaley told AFP by phone from Gao, where the unity talks took place.
“It is as if they want us to dissolve into Ansar Dine,” complained the representative of the secular Tuareg rebels. “That is unacceptable.”
Asherif said the original accord had been merely a basis for working discussions and that the deal was on a “take it or leave it” basis.
Ansar Dine's charismatic leader Iyad Ag Ghaly had been due to hold further talks in Gao Tuesday.
The short-lived accord was hammered out after weeks of sometimes fraught discussions between two groups that have long held separate objectives and ideologies.
Tuareg rebels, many of whom were mercenaries who had fought for Moamer Kadhafi and returned heavily armed to their Azawad homeland, rekindled their decades-old struggle for autonomy with a massive offensive in mid-January.
A coup by Captain Amadou Sanogo and a group of low-ranking officers ousted the government in Bamako on March 22, saying it was incompetent in handling the Tuareg rebellion.
However the coup only opened the way for the Tuaregs, Ansar Dine Äbelieved to have ties with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Ä and criminal groups to occupy the vast north of the country, an area larger than France.
Mali's embattled transitional government had swiftly rejected the embryonic rebel alliance's declaration.
The West African bloc ECOWAS on Monday also rejected the rebel declaration of independence and repeated an earlier threat to take “all necessary measures” to keep Mali intact.
Mali's transitional leaders have stressed their wish to restore the country's territorial integrity but seem unable to guarantee their own safety, let alone mount a credible challenge against the north's new masters.
The 70-year-old interim president, Dioncounda Traore, was assaulted by a mob in his own office on the eve of the transition's official start.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview to Le Monde newspaper that the former colonial power was not considering direct intervention and explained that Paris favoured broad consensus led by regional powers.
But French President Francois Hollande, speaking after a meeting with African Union chairman and Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi, was less categorical.
“It is only within the framework of a UN Security Council decision that France will consider involvement, but only if it asked to,” he told reporters in Paris.
He said regional powers should take the crisis to the UN Security Council “in order to define a framework that allows Mali, and the Sahel region in general, to recover its stability.” - Sapa-AFP