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Islamist Rebels In Mali Inch Closer To Mauritania, Niger

Fighters of the Islamist group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa guard a tank abandoned by the Malian army on Aug. 7.
Fighters of the Islamist group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa guard a tank abandoned by the Malian army on Aug. 7.

It's hard to keep track of who is fighting who in the west African nation of Mali, but it appears that Islamist rebels have pushed secular Tuareg rebels out of a small town about 50 miles east of the border with Mauritania. As the Associated Press notes, the action comes about a week after militants captured the town of Ménaka, in eastern Mali, about 65 miles from the border with Niger.

There's global concern that the complicated Malian infighting could spill over to Mauritania, Kenya and other neighbors besides, such as Burkina Faso. As NPR's Michele Kelemen told All Things Considered, the United States' leading fear is that Mali will topple toward a Somalia-like situation. That means militant al-Qaida affiliates could claim a new base to plan attacks, a situation many countries dread.

Burkina Faso has hosted talks between the Malian government and rebels, including the most powerful Islamist group, Ansar Dine. But the players in the rebel and government leadership keep changing.

The initial rebellion began earlier this year when secular Tuaregs rebelled against the Malian leadership, complaining of poor treatment. In March, Malian soldiers, angry over the government's slow response to the rebel threat, toppled the democratically elected president. During the power vacuum, the rebels seized the northern two thirds of Mali - an area about the size of Texas. Then, the soldiers who overthrew the Malian government were faced with a counter-coup of their own in early May, which they eventually put down. But during that time of additional confusion, rebels to seized yet more territory. At the same time, Islamist fighters, many of whom had fought in Libya, were swelling the numbers of secular rebel fighters. As the Islamists gained territory, they began imposing sharia law on civilians.

With the Tuareg rebels' retreat this week, it seems the Islamists may control most of northern Mali.

This month, the African Union asked the United Nations Security Council to back a military intervention into Mali, notes VOA, but U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is wary. While he says the Security Council can authorize the force, he's urging more political talks among Malians; and he doesn't want the U.N. to spend money on an intervention force unless its members are well trained, especially on human rights responsibilities.

The reports of human rights violations committed by all sides in the Malian conflict are horrific. Rapes, executions, whippings, amputations and destruction of religious sites have all occurred, note activist groups. Amnesty International illustrates this with the story of a Malian cattle farmer wrongly accused of stealing cows. He protested his innocence in a brief show trial but Islamist militants declared him guilty; they immediately cut off his right hand and threw him in prison:

"After, they locked me in a cell for eight days, after this time, a medical assistant came to give me treatment. Before my hand was amputated, the owner of the stolen cattle came forward to say that the animals had been found."

Human Rights Watch says both rebels and the Malian coup leaders are now forcing children into combat. The coup leaders have 'disappeared' Malian soldiers who participated in the counter-coup and tortured and intimidated many people, including ethnic Tuaregs not involved with the rebellion, the families of dissident soldiers, and journalists, among others. HRW also says it's worried about the government's civil defense members who have little discipline and have imposed 'lethal, collective punishment'.

France is urging the Malian interim government to open talks with any leadership from the rebellious north that's willing to speak and which rejects terrorism, says AP.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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