Mali Islamists suffer split as Africans prepare assault

Thu Jan 24, 2013 1:51pm EST
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By Richard Valdmanis and David Lewis

MARKALA, Mali/DAKAR (Reuters) - A split emerged on Thursday in the alliance of Islamist militant groups occupying northern Mali, as French and African troops prepared an offensive aimed at driving them from their safe haven in the Sahara.

A senior negotiator from the Ansar Dine rebels who helped seize the north from Mali's government last year said he was now part of a faction that wanted talks and rejected the group's alliance with al Qaeda's North African franchise AQIM.

It was unclear how many fighters had joined the new Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) faction. But the announcement will encourage international negotiators who have long sought to prise apart the Islamist alliance, seen as a major threat by Washington and other Western and regional powers.

"There has to be a ceasefire so there can be talks," Alghabass Ag Intallah, an ethnic Tuareg, told Reuters from the Ansar Dine stronghold of Kidal in northeast Mali. The new MIA would focus its efforts on seeking autonomy for the northern homeland of the desert Tuaregs, he said.

For nearly two weeks, French aircraft have bombarded rebel positions, vehicles and stores in the center and north of Mali as a ground force of African troops assembles to launch a U.N.-backed military intervention.

The strikes halted a rebel advance further south. French and Malian ground troops have also retaken several towns after the insurgents avoided a head-on fight, abandoning vehicles and slipping away into the scrubland.

On Thursday, a Reuters correspondent saw around 160 troops from Burkina Faso deployed in the dusty central Malian town of Markala - the first West African troops to link up with French and Malian forces. They replaced French soldiers protecting a bridge over the Niger River.

Malian women pounding millet by the roadside stopped to wave as French armored vehicles, trucks and jeeps rumbled north from Segou - some 30 km (20 miles) from Markala - heading for the town of Diabaly, recently recaptured from the rebels.   Continued...

Malian soldiers relax in the recently liberated town of Diabaly January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard