Tuareg fighters use Qaddafi’s arms in renewed attacks against Mali

Boston – The armed conflict between Tuareg fighters and the Malian government that began January 17 entered its third week in northern Mali, with distorted claims of control and allegiance blurring the story.

The nomadic fighters were previously trained and armed under the Qaddafi regime, but since the strongman’s death in October, many Taureg have joined under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a newly formed movement exhibiting strongly autonomous rhetoric.

“Our goal is to liberate our lands from Malian occupation,” said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, the NMLA spokesman currently in exile in France.

Azawad is the traditional home of the Tuareg, refering to the region that spreads across northern Mali, northern Niger and southern Algeria.

Armed with sophisticated weapons taken from Qaddafi’s arsenal, as opposed to the raiding parties armed with AK-47s of previous armed uprisings, the rebels now pose a threat to the Malian Army, enough to bring fighting to a standoff.

In a New York Times article, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, the foreign minister of Mali, referred to the new arms as “heavy weapons, … Antitank weapons. Antiaircraft weapons.” Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, an official at the Defense Ministry, agreed, citing the arsenal as “significant enough to allow them to achieve their objectives.”

Distorted claims from all sides

After three weeks of fighting, reports from the region are still distorted, with both the NMLA and the Malian Army claiming control of the roughly ten towns attacked.

At least two of the towns, Tessalit, and Aguel’hoc, contain military barracks, making them significant targets. The BBC reports that Tessalit contains the largest military base in the north, and that elite Malian troops are staged there.

Andy Morgan, reporting for ThinkAfricaPress, reported that the towns of Lere and Niafounke, west of Timbuktu, were also in the midst of fighting between NMLA and the Malian Army, making it the furthest west Tuareg fighters have pushed since 1990. “With no independent journalists in the field,” he writes, “hard facts and precise casualty figures are hard to come by, but it is clear that total fatalities on both sides are well into the hundreds.”

To further complicate the situation, the Malian government announced on Friday that fighters from al-Qaida’s North African branch, Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, have been fighting alongside the Tuareg.

In Paris, the NMLA immediately denounced the allegation.

“There were no other fighters other than NMLA fighters who took part in the attack, “Ag Acharatoumane told The Associated Press over the phone that day. “I reject the statement that fighters from AQIM fought with us.”

The Tuaregs are a traditionally nomadic people spread throughout the Saharan desert. They have risen up against the Malian government three times since the country gained its independence from France. The most recent attempt ended in 2009.

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