BAMAKO, Mali - The rebel group that recently seized control of Mali's remote north in a manoeuvr that effectively partitioned the country in two announced a cease-fire Thursday, saying they had reached their military goal.
Moussa Ag Assarid, a spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, said the group was declaring the cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid to resume in the north, where shops were looted.
In Ivory Coast, the military chiefs of the nations bordering Mali met Thursday to hash out their plan for a military intervention. Deputy Ivorian Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said military action is being considered both to reverse the coup that deposed Mali's president last month, as well as to preserve Mali's territorial integrity after the rebel advance in the north.
He instructed the army chiefs of the 15 nations in West Africa to draft a detailed plan, including how many troops each intends to send, how quickly they could ready them and what logistical means they plan to contribute.
In Paris, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France is ready to help African forces on a logistical level. The chief of staff of the French army, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, travelled Thursday to Burkina Faso to discuss details with the president.
The rebels launched their insurgency in January, saying they wanted to establish an independent Tuareg homeland in the north, known as the Azawad. They only succeeded in taking small towns until March 21, when disgruntled soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the distant capital of Bamako, overthrowing the democratically elected president.
In the confusion that followed the coup, the rebels launched a new offensive and succeeded in taking the capitals of the three main northern provinces, including Kidal, which fell last Friday, Gao on Saturday and Timbuktu on Sunday.
"The NMLA has reached the end of its military operations for the liberation of the territory of the Azawad," said Assarid, speaking by telephone from Paris.
"Since the day before yesterday when our units reached Douentza which we consider to be the frontier of the Azawad," he said, referring to a town some 600 kilometres (375 miles) from Bamako, "the military offensive is declared over."
Assarid's group is the largest rebel group involved in the offensive, but it is not the only one, and in the three main towns in the north, local officials say they cannot be sure which of the rebel armies has the upper hand. Western observers have expressed concern over the presence of an Islamist faction called Ansar Dine, which planted its ominous black flag in all three of the provincial capitals. This week, the group announced it was imposing Sharia law in the ancient city of Timbuktu.
The mayor of Timbuktu said nearly all of the estimated 300 Christians based in the city fled after Ansar Dine's spiritual chief Iyad Ag Ghali gave an interview on local radio outlining the tenets of Sharia law: Women are to be covered at all times, thieves will have their hands cut off and adulterers will be stoned.
"The problem for us is that we don't know who is the master of our town," said the mayor, Ousmane Halle, explaining that the Islamist faction had taken over the city's military camp, while the NMLA was stationed at the airport.
"What I deplore is the departure of the Christian community," he said. The city has been honoured as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its collection of ancient Islamic manuscripts, propagating a moderate interpretation of the religion.
"Many said to me that they are obliged to leave," he said. "And they are right. I cannot guarantee their safety. And these are people that have lived side by side with us for centuries."
In a statement, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday strongly condemned the forcible seizure of power in Mali. The bloc representing nations in West Africa has imposed harsh sanctions in an effort to force out the military junta. Since Monday, Mali has been under an embargo, its borders closed. As a result, the country is struggling to import fuel, which comes overland from neighbouring Senegal and Ivory Coast.
Rolling blackouts have started in the capital, with many neighbourhoods now only having electricity at night. A representative of the state energy company said on state television Wednesday that they were running at 50 per cent capacity due to the embargo, and things could get worse. The government is prioritizing who gets power, with hospitals and military installations ahead of residential areas.
"Mali has never experienced such a situation," Mali's U.N. Ambassador Omar Daou told the Security Council on Wednesday. "Our people are divided. Our country is threatened with partition."
Once a diplomat assigned to Mali's consulate in Saudi Arabia, the Islamist leader Ag Ghali used to be in regular contact with the United States Embassy in Bamako, according to diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. For years, he was a Tuareg rebel leader and acted as a go-between when foreigners were kidnapped by a branch of al-Qaida based in the north of Mali. Although he is believed to be in touch with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, there is no evidence that he himself has taken part in terrorist activities.
The imposition of Sharia has worried analysts and country watchers. Besides Timbuktu, the Ansar Dine faction is accused of destroying bars in Gao and Kidal, and of forcing shopkeepers there to take down pictures of unveiled women.
On Thursday, gunmen seized seven workers from Algeria's consulate in Gao. Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci told the state news agency Thursday the group was forced to leave the consulate and taken to an unknown location.
He added that the government was mobilized to ensure their release as soon as possible.
Algeria has aggressively fought Islamic extremists on its own soil, including AQIM, which has its roots in Algeria.
In Abidjan, where the military chiefs were meeting, the head of Ivory Coast's army said that the possible link between the rebels and terrorism is reason enough for a possible military intervention.
"The advance of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad, associated with terrorist groups like AQIM and Ansar Dine and others, gives sufficient reason to the entire region to be put on notice," said Gen. Soumaila Bakayoko.
Associated Press writers Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali; Laura Burke in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Karim Kebir in Algiers, Algeria contributed to this report.