Mali northern rebels fight on despite coup in capital

BAMAKO - Despite a ceasefire call from the military junta now ruling Mali, northern Tuareg rebels have shown no signs of halting their offensive, their boldest and most successful campaign yet.

The coup leaders who ousted Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22 said they were partly motivated by the government's incompetent response to the fresh Tuareg assault, launched two months ago.

The Tuaregs -- who have for years demanded autonomy for their nomadic tribes -- have over the past two decades launched several uprisings against Mali's government.

But now the rebel ranks include men who fought alongside Libya's Moamer Kadhafi and have returned to Mali heavily armed, which has helped them win unprecedented military victories.

Late Monday, the head of Mali's ruling junta, Captain Amadou Sanogo, called on the armed groups "to cease hostilities and to come to the negotiating table as soon as possible."

The various rebel factions have hardly rushed to accept the offer. "It is our policy chief of staff who must respond to the question of a ceasefire," said Moussa Salam of the MNLA Tuareg rebel group. "On the ground, we remain vigilant."

A source within Ansar Dine, a separate northern rebel faction with ties to Al-Qaeda's north Africa satellite, said a ceasefire did not address the group's Islamist aims. "Call to a ceasefire or not... Sharia in the (northeastern region) Adrar remains the objective," said the source, who is close to Ansar Dine's leader Iyad Ag Ghaly.

Mali's army is maintaining its presence in the key northern hubs of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal and guarding nearby areas; but several other strategic northern cities have fallen to the MNLA and Ansar Dine. The MNLA has secular objectives and does not share Ansar Dine's desire for the imposition of Islamic law, but the two groups regularly fight together against the Malian army.

Last weekend, the Islamists said their capture of Kidal was "imminent", but the army has sought to temper fears of wider rebel gains. "We are keeping the city," despite the "harassment" of the MNLA and the Islamists, said Colonel Aladji Gamou, the army's chief of operations in Kidal.

According to witnesses, the army has dug trenches at the periphery of the city to guard against a potential rebel assault. "The situation in Kidal is difficult," but there is no "war", a teacher who lives in the city said. Elsewhere in the north, the army said it had boosted its numbers with civilian militia.

"They are the sons of the country. If they want to fight on our side, it's normal to find them a place," said Colonel Abdul Fane in the northwestern city of Timbuku. Observers say some soldiers in the regular army have kept a degree of autonomy, not fully submitting to the authority of the junta that took power last week.

But those unsympathetic to the coup are in disarray following the arrest or flight of their leaders. "Here, in Bamako, it is chaos. In the north, it's worse," said lawmaker Mohamed Coulibaly.

"The north of Mali was already a powderkeg, but today the situation is increasingly difficult to control," added a Bamako-based diplomat. "Anything could happen."