Ethnic Tuareg separatists are ready to support the French military intervention in Mali by taking on Islamist rebels on the ground in the north of the country, one of their senior officials told AFP on Monday.
“We’re ready to help, we are already involved in the fight against terrorism,” Moussa Ag Assarid, a representative of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), said by telephone from northern Mali.
“We can do the job on the ground. We’ve got men, arms and, above all, the desire to rid Azawad of terrorism.”
The MNLA, which is seeking a Tuareg homeland in much of the north of Mali, an area it calls Azawad, has played a major role in Mali’s troubled recent history.
A rebellion launched in January 2012 triggered a military coup in the capital Bamako two months later, creating the political vacuum that enabled Islamist groups to seize control of the north.
The MNLA initially allied itself to the Islamist groups but soon found themselves sidelined as an extreme form of Islamic law was imposed across an area larger than France.
Considerably weakened, the movement began peace negotiations with the Malian authorities in December and dropped its demand for independence in favor of a request for self-rule.
Malian PM arrives in Algeria
Meanwhile, Malian Prime Minister Diango Cissoko visited Algeria on Sunday a day after Algiers proclaimed “unequivocal” support for its neighbor, where France is helping battle an Islamist insurgency.
The visit came as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday that Algeria has allowed France full use of its air space in its military intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali and is ready to seal its border if the conflict moves north, reported Reuters.
The delegation, consisting of Cissoko and his defense minister Diaran Kone, are scheduled to meet Algerian FM Abdelmalek Sellal ahead of a meeting Monday with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, AFP quoted Malian sources as saying.
Algerian officials said the talks will focus on bolstering cooperation between the two countries and with partners outside the region to eradicate terrorism and organized crime, which threaten stability in the Sahel region.
Foreign ministry spokesman Amar Belani said in a statement on Saturday that Algeria expresses its “unequivocal support for the Malian transitional authorities, with whom it maintains multifaceted relations, including in the military sphere”.
“It should be noted that Mali has asked, in line with its sovereignty, for friendly powers to reinforce its national capacities to fight terrorism,” Belani said, as quoted by AFP.
In the same vain, French FM Fabius said he was in regular contact with the government in Algeria, which had pushed for a political solution to the crisis in Mali over a military intervention, and was grateful it was being supportive of the operation.
“Algeria has authorized unlimited access to fly over its territory, something I thank the Algerian authorities for,” Fabius told LCI television, as Rafale jets deployed from France pounded rebel strongholds in northern Mali according to Reuters.
Algeria has long defended the principle of non-interference, but did not oppose a U.N. resolution authorizing the intervention of an African military force in Mali if dialogue failed.
France has intervened in Mali at Bamako's request following a new offensive toward the south by the Islamists, who seized control of the country's north in June.
Benin on Sunday pledged roughly 300 troops to take part in an African force aimed at helping Mali battle the Islamists, after Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal had each pledged 500 troops the previous day.
The U.N. Security Council has approved a 3,300-strong force to help Mali win back its north. The force is to be commanded by a Nigerian, with Nigeria pledging the largest contribution so far at 600 troops.
French Mirage fighter jets on Sunday pounded Mali for a third straight day and a top Islamist leader was reported killed.