Tuareg rebels of Mali’s National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) on Friday declared “the independence of Azawad,” a region in the north of the country, according to a statement posted on the group’s website.
“On behalf of the free and defiant Azawadi people and after consultations with the executive committee, the revolutionary council, the consultative council, provincial offices, chief of staff of the National Liberation Army...we have decided to irrevocably declare the independence of the state of Azawad, as of today,” the statement said.
The statement also mentioned the rebels’ “recognition” of and “respect” for the borders of the neighboring countries and the MNLA’s commitment to “full engagement in the U.N. charter.”
The rebels pledged to restore security and start the building of state institutions that will lead to a “democratic constitution for an independent Azawad state.”
The MNLA called on the “the international community to recognize the state of Azawad without delay.”
The movement said it would continue to manage the “affairs of Azawad until the appointment of a national authority.”
The MNLA was formed in October 2011 when local Tuareg rebels were joined by their comrades who were in Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.
The MNLA rejected reports that its rebels had fought mostly for Qaddafi.
“We confirm and underline that the combatants who returned from Libya, fought with the NTC (National Transitional Council) forces more than they did with Qaddafi’s forces,” the group said on its website.
The defeat of Qaddafi led to an influx of arms into the largely ungoverned desert Sahara area around where the Tuareg tribes live.
The Malian government has accused the MNA of having links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb because of the Tuareg movement’s alleged cooperation with Ansar Dine, an extremist Islamist group.
But the MNLA has distanced itself from Ansar Dine, saying “it was holding its position in the face of all these mafia networks,” according to a statement posted on its website.
Armed Islamists on Thursday raided the Algerian consulate in northeastern Mali and kidnaped seven diplomats on Thursday amid fears that al-Qaeda is taking advantage of the lawlessness in the area.
NMLA spokesman Moussa Ag Attaher, in comments to AFP, has denounced the kidnaping as “deplorable.”
Seeking to dispel worries over its composition, the movement announced in January 2012 that it is made up of old rebels, fighters who returned from Libya, volunteers from the various ethnicities of northern Mali, and soldiers and officers who deserted from the Malian army.
Tuareg rebels’ sweeping territorial gains since the beginning of the year prompted a military coup in Mali on March 22 with angry soldiers accusing ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure with “high treason” in his failure to provide troops in the north with needed support to confront to the rebels.
Nomadic Tuaregs have nurtured the dream of secession since Mali’s own independence from France in 1960 but have little foreign support for a move neighbors fear could encourage other separatist movements. Paris immediately dismissed the move.
“A unilateral declaration of independence that was not recognized by African states would have no meaning France’s Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said Friday.
The head of the African Union Commission has rejected the declaration of independence by the Tuareg rebels in the north of Mali and called on the rest of the world to shun their secession bid.
“(AU Commission chair Jean Ping) firmly condemns this announcement, which is null and of no value whatsoever. He calls on the international community as a whole to fully support this principled position of Africa,” the continental grouping said in a statement.
Algeria, meanwhile, vowed it “will never accept questioning Mali’s territorial integrity” and is pushing for dialogue to resolve the crisis with its southern neighbor, according to statement by Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia.
Ouyahia told France’s Le Monde newspaper that he was opposed to foreign intervention in Mali.