BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The first thing the Malian soldiers heard at daybreak were the cries of "Allah Akbar" — "God is great" — ringing out over their camp in the lonely eastern town. Then shooting began as Tuareg rebels launched their first attack against the military in Mali since 2009.
Many Tuareg fighters have returned to Mali since the fall of their patron, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, bringing battle experience and weapons with them. Some are ready to fight for their dream of a homeland for the Tuareg and have already begun doing so, re-igniting a conflict that had been dormant for more than two years.
On Jan. 17, some 40 Tuareg rebel vehicles drove through the sandy dunes and stunted desert trees toward the town of Menaka in Mali's east, near the Niger border. They headed for army and national guard posts.
"We hadn't slept all night because we knew something was coming," one national guardsman in Menaka told The Associated Press, adding that rumors of an attack had been circulating days before it began. Just as it started, he heard the cries of "God is great." The attack was punctuated with explosions of heavy weapons and gunfire. The soldier was interviewed on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to journalists.
Eventually soldiers at both posts fled. In midmorning, helicopter gunships arrived and fired at the rebels, forcing them to retreat. It was all over by midday. The next day, Tuaregs attacked two other towns in northern Mali, Tessalit and Aguelhok.
And on Thursday, Tuaregs attacked two more, including Anderamboukane in Mali's east and Lere in the northwest, showing the rebels have the capacity to launch attacks all over Mali's vast northern desert. Lere is more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) west of Anderamboukane.
The Tuareg are a traditionally nomadic people who live in countries touching the Sahara Desert including Mali, Algeria, Niger and Libya. In Mali, they've risen up against the government twice in the last 25 years. In both rebellions, Gadhafi played a role.
This time, though, it's hard to predict how Gadhafi's absence will affect events.
The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad claimed responsibility for the attacks. The group was formed in October and seeks self-determination of the north of Mali, an area it refers to as the Azawad. Azawad can also refer to the Tuareg-speaking zone covering northern Mali, northern Niger and southern Algeria where many of the blue-turbaned nomads live, but NMLA leaders say their demands relate only to the area within Mali.
Thousands of Tuaregs moved from Mali to Libya over the decades beginning in the 1970s, and many joined special divisions of Gadhafi's military where they earned higher salaries than in Mali. A relationship developed between the Tuareg and Gadhafi, who claimed they had distant blood links.
When the Gadhafi regime fell last year, Tuareg troops smuggled Gadhafi family members to neighboring Algeria and Niger. After Gadhafi was killed in his hometown of Sirte in October, many Tuaregs no longer felt safe in Libya and began returning to Mali. Some met with the Malian government and pledged their support, but perhaps a few hundred helped form the NMLA.
They are well-trained and brought sophisticated weapons like armored vehicles and vehicle-mounted rocket launchers, said Pierre Boilley, professor of contemporary African history at the Pantheon Sorbonne University in Paris.
"All this made a huge difference," Boilley said. "And we can see it in the strategy of the rebels — so far instead of hit-and-run attacks they are taking on the Malian army in full frontal confrontation."
The Malian Army and the NMLA have given wildly varying accounts of the fighting, with the claimed death tolls on both sides difficult to verify independently.
Mali claims to have killed 45 rebels at Tessalit and Aguelhok and many more during the attack on Menaka, saying that only three government troops were killed. For its part, the NMLA says 52 Malian soldiers were killed while acknowledging no casualties on their own side.
In the past, the duration of Tuareg rebellions in Mali depended in part on Gadhafi's support.
Boilley said Gadhafi provided political support at a regional level for the Tuareg rebellion in the early 1990s. During the next round of hostilities between 2006 and 2009, Gadhafi probably supported Tuareg fighters financially, Boilley said. Gadhafi also provided a safe haven for Malian Tuaregs.
"Because he was always wanting to interfere, Gadhafi created a space where the Tuareg could organize and get training," he said.
But now, Gadhafi's absence means the rebels have one less source of cash and no political backing from any country in the region. In addition, many people in north Mali don't support the current revolt and prefer to see the rebels use political means to attain their goals.
The NMLA says its attacks will continue across Mali's north, but that they are open to negotiations.
The Malian government says that if rebels accept something less than full independence, negotiations are possible. Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said Monday the government is open to hearing rebels' demands.
Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, a Tuareg member of Mali's parliament, doesn't see a quick end to the rebellion.
"These men will fight until the end," he said. "Most of these people were in exile. They've come back and they don't want to go back into exile ever again."
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