Rebels who took over northern Mali this year clashed Friday with Islamists who had ejected them from major cities, spokesmen for both sides told reporters.
A Tuareg rebel spokesman said the clashes near Ansango were part of an offensive to recapture the Gao region, Agence France-Presse reported. Oumar Ould Hamaha, spokesman for the Islamist group MUJAO, told the Associated Press the Tuareg started the fray by kidnapping a dozen of its members.
“The fighting began this morning,” Hamaha said. “We are in the process of strangling them.”
The Tuareg separatists declared their own state in the north this year, in the tumultuous aftermath of a military coup. Islamists who piggybacked on their advances later ousted them from Gao and elsewhere and imposed strict religious law, alarming human rights groups. The gulf between the two bands of fighters has only grown wider since.
“Their strategic interests allied temporarily when they were able to take so much territory in the north as things were breaking down in Bamako,” the capital, said Jon Temin of the United States Institute of Peace. “But they found out very quickly that their fundamental goals are quite different.”
The Tuareg forces are not devoted to the rigid brand of religious law that the Islamists espouse, for example. Nor do they have the same ties to extremist groups, Temin said, one key reason that international groups have held out hope of negotiating with them to help defuse the crisis.
The two groups are facing off as African forces press plans for military action in Mali, aiming to retake the northern stretch of the country from both bands of fighters. The clashes also come as the Tuareg separatists issued a statement with another Islamist group, Ansar Dine, favoring political dialogue. MUJAO has refused such negotiations, the AP reported.
An intervention strategy approved by the African Union would include 3,300 ground forces backed up by air assaults; it is expected to go before the U.N. Security Council before the end of the month.
Analysts say the military action must be backed up by political and diplomatic efforts to stabilize the state, which remains fragile in the wake of the coup. To halt the unrest, the new government must include groups such as the Tuareg, which felt marginalized and excluded in the past, they say.
“You’re not going to solve these problems simply by military force,” said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group.
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