Tuareg rebels on Monday denied reports that massive numbers of jihadists had surged into northern Mali to discourage foreign military intervention against armed Islamists occupying the region.
Reports of “the arrival of convoys of jihadists from Sudan and the Western Sahara are totally false. We categorically deny it,” said Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, an official with the Tuareg rebels' National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who is living in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou.
Residents of cities in northern Mali, backed up by military sources, said at the weekend that hundreds of jihadists had just poured into the region ready to fight alongside Islamist groups in the event of foreign armed intervention.
But from the neighbouring country, Asseleh dismissed such reports as “propaganda to intimidate the international armies who want to intervene in northern Mali.
“We recognise that for a long time there have been a few Sudanese in the forces of MUJAO (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), of whom one is at the police post in Gao (a major northern town) to oversee the application of sharia”, or Islamic law, he said.
The MNLA, which launched an offensive in northern Mali in January, initially allied itself with different Islamist groups to take the main towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, but the Tuaregs were eventually overpowered by Al-Qaeda's north African branch and its allies.
The Tuareg are historic, nomadic inhabitants of northern Mali and lay claim to the Azawad part of the Kidal region. They have waged several rebellions against Bamako.
The task of the Islamists in seizing the vast north of the arid west African country was facilitated by a March coup, which created chaos and weakened the army.
Residents of Timbuktu and Gao reported the large influx of foreign fighters as the west African regional bloc ECOWAS forged ahead with plans to try and reconquer northern Mali, amid fears that the region will become a sanctuary for radicals like Afghanistan a decade ago.
A Malian security source confirmed to AFP on Monday in Bamako “the arrival of new terrorists in the north of Mali”, but said claims that there were “several hundred” of them were “exaggerated”.
African and European representatives met in Bamako on Friday to discuss the logistics of a bid to recapture the north. The talks came a week after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution giving ECOWAS nations 45 days to set out plans for intervention. - Sapa-AFP