Nouakchott — Despite losses, Touareg rebel leaders say they will continue to confront terrorists occupying northern Mali.
Last week's clashes between terrorist groups and secular Touareg rebels in northern Mali were only the start of a larger campaign, Touareg officials said Wednesday (November 21st).
Forces from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) began battling members of the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and their al-Qaeda allies outside Gao last Friday (November 16th). Clashes later continued near the towns of Menaka and Ansongo in eastern Mali.
Those events were only the start of a long war against smuggling, terrorists and organised crime gangs in Azawad, Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, a leading MNLA figure and member of the group's political bureau, told Magharebia Wednesday evening.
"The war has now temporarily stopped, but we will proceed with it to crack down on terrorist and smuggling gangs in all Azawad cities, not just Menaka, but we'll march against them in Gao, Timbuktu, Menaka and Ansongo, and all other villages until we cleanse them once and for all," Ag Assaleh told Magharebia in an interview from battlefield near the Malian-Nigerien border.
Ag Assaleh also said that Monday's skirmishes near Menaka had left 12 MNLA members dead, as well as 17 members of MUJAO, adding that both groups withdrew from the town.
However, Moussa Ag al-Said, an MNLA media official, disputed that the MNLA forces withdrew under pressure. He accused MUJAO, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Nigeria's Boko Haram of taking fortified positions in Menaka and preventing the local populations from leaving so as to take them as human shields.
He also stated that his group was besieging Menaka and was preparing to launch "a decisive attack".
Analysts have said the new MNLA action in northern Mali reflects a desire by the group to play a role in combating terrorism in the region.
"However, the group should have played this role months ago when they had a strong presence in northern Mali cities," commented Amadou Diarra, a journalist at Mali's L'Essor daily.
"We shouldn't ignore the new developments that prompted the group [the MNLA] to resort to armed action against the terrorists," he added. "This includes the group's feeling that the world is interested in negotiating with the Islamist Ansar al-Din, and therefore, the Touareg movement rushed to seize a major city in the north to strike a new field balance that would allow it to negotiate out of a strong position parallel to Ansar al-Din."
Menaka residents who fled the area told AFP that the fighting left behind a bloodbath, with one security official describing it as "a real massacre". Witnesses also said that the MNLA was routed after MUJAO was bolstered by reinforcements. Al-Qaeda fighters from Timbuktu were reportedly sent to help the Islamist group over the week-end in the Gao skirmishes.
The Monday clashes in Menaka came the same day the European Union approved a plan to send 250 military trainers to Koulikoro, near Bamako, to help rebuild the Malian army.
Military expert Deco Abderrehaman told Magharebia that the Malian army was still suffering from the ramifications of the March coup, with some officers refusing to obey the orders of younger, less experienced officers.
"European support is very important, but its importance still hinges on the preparedness of Malian army's military leaders to work together and put public interests over their narrow personal interests," Abderrehaman said.