A fighter showing an armoured vehicle taken from the Malian army.
The Tuareg separatists who, along with radical Islamist groups, have taken control of northern Mali are preparing for the possibility of a counter-attack by the Malian army. One of our Observers, who recently travelled to the northern city of Gao, was able to photograph these separatists posing proudly with their military arsenal. One of their commanders agreed to tell us about how he and his men are getting ready to fight.
Our Observer, Assan Midal, is a Tuareg who works as a tour guide in the Sahel desert. Since the beginning of the crisis in northern Mali, he’s made several trips and reported for us from Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu, the region’s three major cities. In March, these cities fell into the hands of the MNLA, the separatist Tuareg movement pushing for northern Mali’s independence, as well as of radical Islamist fighters from the groups Ansar Dine and Mujao, an al-Qaeda offshoot.
Midal went to Gao’s airport, where the MNLA rebels have set up a military base. There, he took photos of their armoured vehicles, military equipment and spoke to the rebels.
The MNLA has set up a base at Gao's airport.
Colonel Intallah Ag Assai (6th from the right) and his men.
Political negotiations are currently underway in Burkina Faso between representatives of the rebel groups and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). While the stated goal is to find a peaceful end to the crisis, ECOWAS and the African Union are hedging their bets – they’re still trying to get the United Nation’s support for a military intervention in northern Mali. Were the UN to give the green light, 3,000 troops from several West African states would join forces with the Malian army to combat the rebels. While the Malian army suffered a bitter defeat in March, its top brass says it is ready to counter-attack.
"Whether their troops come by way of Algeria, Mauritania or Niger, we’ll be ready for them"
Colonel Intallah Ag Assai is an MNLA commander based in Gao. He says that after spending ten years in the Malian army, he decided to join the Tuareg rebellion in January.
We’ve been ready for war ever since we arrived in Gao in March. The airport serves as our base. That’s where we keep our weapons and all the other military equipment we seized from the Malian army. We already owned some military equipment before our uprising [which started in January], but we got our hands on much more by helping ourselves to what we found in army bases as we made our way north. I would say 60 percent of what we currently own was taken from the army. Right now, we’re fixing a helicopter and ten armoured vehicles. Thirty more of these vehicles are in working order. We also took lots of automatic rifles, of different calibres.[The MNLA’s equipment also comes from former mercenaries for Muammar Gaddafi who have joined the MNLA’s ranks. After the Libyan leader’s death, many of them returned to Mali heavily armed.]A young fighter. In the background, a helicopter "undergoing revision"."We're training 1,000 men to use weapons"Our troops are ready to fight. For the past two months, about 1,000 men have been training here in Gao. Overall, there are 2,000 of us here [Ed. Note: This number is difficult to verify]. The new trainees are volunteers from Gao and the surrounding region. Most of them are in their early twenties. They train five days a week on a lot near the airport. We don’t pay them, but of course we give them room and board. They work out, learn military discipline, and are taught how to use weapons."Representatives from Ansar Dine and the MNLA meet on a regular basis to avoid tensions"Ansar Dine and the Mujao are also present in the Gao region, and they too recruit young trainees. However, we’re not in competition with one another, because we have different goals. They want to enforce Sharia law in the region, while we want independence for the Azawad [i.e. northern Mali]. Of course, we too are Muslims, but we prefer a moderate form of Islam. I wouldn’t say we get along perfectly, but we manage to co-exist. In fact, to avoid any tensions, our leaders meet on a regular basis. What brings us together are our common enemies, the Malian army and ECOWAS’ troops.We’re waiting to see what comes out of the negotiations in Ouagadougou. We are military men, so we’ll execute the orders that the MNLA’s politicians give us. If, during the negotiations, our representatives manage to find a peaceful way out of this crisis, we’ll put down our weapons. However, if they don’t and ECOWAS decides to send its troops here, we will defend the land that God gave us. We’ve got 9,000 fighters spread out along the borders of northern Mali, so whether their troops come by way of Algeria, Mauritania or Niger, we’ll be ready for them. [Ed. Note: In an interview with the magazine Jeune Afrique, Bilal Ag Achérif, the president of the MNLA’s transitional council, said his fighters number 10,000, not 9,000].Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Peggy Bruguière.