A MUJAO military vehicle in the streets of Gao.
In what was a violent end to a three-month power-sharing arrangement, Mali’s radical Islamists have driven their former allies, Tuareg-led separatist group MNLA, out of the country’s northern city of Gao. Although communication in and out of the area is increasingly difficult, our Observer on the ground tells us that the Islamists have not only won a military victory but also the support of the people.
The uneasy alliance between Islamists and the MNLA collapsed Wednesday evening after clashes erupted between the two groups in Gao. Islamist forces won control of the city after seizing MNLA headquarters, taking several members of the Tuareg movement prisoner in the process. Overpowered, MNLA forces soon retreated from Gao’s airport, which they had been using as a military base. At least 20 people are reported to have been killed in the fighting.
The violence was triggered by the murder on Monday of a local man, who worked as a teacher and city councillor in Gao. Outraged by the killing, crowds of young people took to the streets the next day to demand greater security, but also the departure of the MNLA, which they blamed for the chaos that had engulfed the region.
Photo of protests in Gao on June 26.
Flanked by members of the Islamist Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO, an al Qaeda offshoot with close ties to Mali’s Islamist group Ansar Dine), the protestors marched to the MNLA’s headquarters in Gao, where they were greeted by gunfire. Fighting broke out between the two factions, ultimately ending with the MNLA’s retreat on Wednesday.
The body of an MNLA fighter killed in clashes on Wednesday, June 27.
Tensions in the region have steadily grown since the MNLA, Ansar Dine and several other radical groups seized the northern half of the country after taking control of the region’s major towns, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal on March 31. In the months that followed, each group moved to boost their influence in the area, vying against each other for the upper hand. However, it looks as though what first began as a war of words has since escalated to armed clashes.
Front gates of the home of a member of the MNLA, which were attacked by Islamists on Wednesday, June 27.
Photos posted on the Facebook group "Journal d'information Gao à la une" by residents of Gao.
“People in Gao feel closer to the Islamists than the MNLA”
Askou (not his real name) was a resident in Gao before he fled the town early on Wednesday morning. He is now staying with a friend in the country’s central Mopti Region.
In my opinion, the Islamists and the Tuareg separatists are out to destroy Mali. But in Gao, Ansar Dine and MUJAO have won the communication war.
The above video was filmed and posted by Malian Islamists as propaganda targeting Gao's youth population. It is meant to show that Islamist groups support the city's youth. Our Observers in Gao have confirmed that the images were captured during the June 26 protest in Gao. It shows groups of youth venting their anger at the MNLA.
“The Islamists have always found stolen scooters or given money to those in need”People in the north clearly feel closer to the MUJWA than the MNLA, for the simple reason that the Islamists offer them more protection. While Gao was under control of both groups, crimes such as scooter thefts and assaults were always blamed, rightly or not, on Tuareg rebels. Whenever someone was robbed, the Islamists found the stolen goods and returned them. Sometimes, they even offered the victim financial compensation.There were lots of Malian and MUJWA flags at Tuesday’s demonstration. Unlike the MNLA, Islamist groups like MUJWA and Ansar Dine do not want Mali to be broken up. This makes them popular with the locals, who just want life to return to normal.
Islamists standing in front of a hospital in Gao on June 27.
“The MNLA taxed people coming in and out of Gao”People in Gao dislike the MNLA for a number of reasons. They forced vendors to pay a tax every time they came in and out of Gao to do business [before Islamists took control of the town, the MNLA controlled several strategic sites in the area including the airport]. For example, I was on the bus leaving Gao on Wednesday, when an MNLA soldier pulled us over and told the driver he had to give him 100 CFA Francs (€0.15) for every passenger on the bus. There were 50 of us. The people are fed up with being treated this way, which explains, in part, why they were happy the Islamists took over.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Peggy Bruguière.