Nomadic Tuareg tribes inhabit a large swath of the Sahara across North Africa, from Algeria to Mali
At least 45 rebels and two government soldiers have died this week during fighting in nothern Mali, the country’s military said.
The battles ended several years of fragile peace in the country’s northern desert, which borders Algeria and Mauritania, and appeared to confirm the Malian government’s fear that nomadic Tuareg fighters once employed by the regime of ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had returned.
« Our armed forces have bravely beaten back the attacks of the former Libyan fighters and the MNLA rebels, » the armed forces said in a statement on state media on Thursday, using the acronym of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
But Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a spokesman for the rebels, denied the government’s account, telling the Reuters news agency that his fighters had killed around 30 to 40 soldiers.
The MNLA says it is fighting for independence for the traditional Tuareg homeland of Azawad, in the Sahara.
« Hunt down the criminals »
The MNLA launched an offensive to seize several northern towns, including Tessalit and Aguelhok. Both rebel and government forces claim to be in control of Aguelhoc. The MNLA spokesman said fighting was suspended in Tessalit to allow for the withdrawal of Algerian soldiers who had been helping Mali.
Fighting erupted in Aguelhoc and Tessalit on Wednesday morning, keeping residents indoors as gunfire was exchanged, a day after the army said it had fought off an attack in the town of Menaka by bombing rebel positions.
The return of the Tuareg fighters from Libya is the « nightmare scenario that regional leaders have been worrying and warning about ever since the fall of Gaddafi in Libya », said Al Jazeera’s May Welsh reporting from neighbouring Niger.
« Lieutenant Oumar Toure, an army officer, said the military « would not allow anyone to meddle with Mali’s sovereignty ».
« The instructions are clear: Don’t hurt civilians, but use all your energy to hunt down the criminals, » he said.
Sources told Al Jazeera on Thursday that the army was conducting house raids and arrests in the northern towns of Gao and Kidal, targetting Tuareg tribal sheikhs, as well as Tuareg military and political figures.
Local government officials in Tessalit and Aguelhoc reported heavy weapons fire on Wednesday as the rebels attacked military camps in the two locations.
« Our aim is to flush out the Malian army in several northern towns, » said a Tuareg rebel spokesman, who called himself « Moussa Salam », in a telephone interview.
Gaddafi’s losing battles
Hundreds of armed Malian Tuareg recently returned from Libya where they fought alongside troops of toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The fight for the toppled Libyan leader’s decades-long regime, in which 3,000 Malian and Nigerien Tuaregs died, was the latest in a string of battles Gaddafi had enlisted Tuareg fighters for.
For decades, Tuareg fighters have been « fighting Gaddafi’s losing battles. They fought his losing war in Chad. They fought his losing fight in Lebanon. Finally, they fought his losing war to save his regime last year », said our correspondent.
The MNLA is a movement with no known leader which was founded at the end of 2011 after a fusion of rebel groups, including the Northern Mali Tuareg Movement (MTNM), whose leader died in a road accident last year.
« This new organisation aims to free the people of Azawad from the illegal occupation of its territory by Mali, » the organisation said in its first press statement in October 2011.
The Azawad, a region considered the birthplace of the Tuareg, stretches from the west to the north of Mali. A nomadic community of some 1.5 million people, Tuareg are scattered between Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Niger and Mali.
Mali and Niger experienced uprisings as the Tuareg fought for recognition of their identity and an independent state in the 1960s, 1990s and early 2000 with a resurgence between 2006 and 2009.
Following these rebellions many fighters left for Libya, where they were integrated into Gaddafi’s security forces. After his fall they returned to northern Mali, particularly the Azawad region between Timbuktu and Kidal.
The return of the rebels has added to Mali’s woes as the region battles al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has carried out many attacks on troops, kidnappings of Westerners and various trafficking operations, including drugs.