BAMAKO: Mali's Tuareg rebels declared independence Friday in the north, a move shot down by Islamist insurgents and the international community, as fears loomed of a humanitarian disaster.
Africa and Europe roundly rejected the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad's (MNLA) declaration of independence as a chorus of calls mounted for a solution to the crisis which has split the coup-wracked nation in two.
Britain said it was temporarily closing its embassy in Mali due to the “unstable” situation and “lack of constitutional rule”.
A democratic success since its last coup 21 years ago, Mali is now roughly divided into a rebel-controlled north and junta-controlled south and a group of radical Islamists have exploited the chaos to swoop in and install sharia.
The Islamist group, Ansar Dine, moved in alongside the MNLA but has given short shrift to their independence plans.
“Our war is a holy war. It's a legal war in the name of Islam. We are against rebellions. We are against independence. We are against revolutions not in the name of Islam,” Ansar Dine military chief Omar Hamaha said.
He was speaking in a video obtained by AFP and France 2 television filmed on Tuesday and Wednesday after the Islamists' takeover of the fabled city of Timbuktu.
The video showed one group of rebels loitering outside a military camp, with their black flag draped over the name of the barracks above the entrance. The international comunity swiftly rejected their proclamation of independence.
The African Union dismissed it as “null and of no value whatsoever.” The European Union also rejected any break-up of Mali and called for talks to resolve the crisis.
“The EU has made clear throughout the crisis that it respects the territorial integrity of Mali,” Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, told AFP.
After decades of fighting for independence, analysts warned it will not be easy to dislodge the Tuareg from the north now that they have staked their claim.
At the same time West Africa expert Paul Melly of London-based Chatham House said Mali cannot be considered “definitively partitioned.””
Much of the population of the north ... is made up of sub-Saharan Africa ethnic groups such as the Songhai and the Fulani, who consider themselves to be Malian and have no interest in an independent Tuareg state.”
Amnesty International warned that north Mali was on the brink of a “major humanitarian disaster” while Oxfam and World Vision said crippling sanctions against the junta could have devastating consequences.
“All the food and medicine stored by major aid agencies has been looted and most of the aid workers have fled,” said Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty International's researcher on west Africa.
“The population is at imminent risk of severe food and medical shortages that could lead to many casualties especially among women and children who are less able to fend for themselves.”
More than 200,000 people have fled since the rebellion began in mid-January.