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Africa

Northern Mali: who is in control?

The strategic city of Douentza was attacked one week by Tuareg separatists, and captured by an Islamic group the next.
Last modified: 2 Sep 2012 21:39

The Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa already had control of Gao [Reuters]

Last week fighters for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) attacked the city of Douentza, forcing merchants to pay ransoms.

Fearing for their lives thousands fled.

Then on Saturday, the city fell to a different group: the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The question remains: who controls northern Mali?

A loose umbrella of rebels claim control. The secular MNLA already claimed the vast territory that stretches from Timbuktu to Mali as the independent land of Azawad, a sort of homeland for Tuareg nationalism. But the MNLA has been severely undermined by new arrivals advocating Islamic rule, including Ansar Dine. Led by the charismatic Ayyad Ag Ghali, the group is expanding its reach in the north enforcing sharia law.

There is also the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Little is known about its rank and file. Their goal is to spread "jihad" and impose a very strict interpretation of Islamic law. Over the last few months they launched an unabated campaign to crack down on Sufi tradition, widespread in the region, which the MUJWA considers "idolatrous".

But despite rivalries among these groups, they remain defiant and determined to fight foreign intervention. A military plan drawn by West Africa's regional bloc, ECOWAS has been shelved, and the government remains is unable to undertake a military action on its own.

For the time being, the government announced it would create a department of religious affairs. An olive branch extended to the Islamists in the north and a symbolic gesture from a government weakened by divisions and rivalries.