10/29/2012 16:28 GMT
BAMAKO, Oct 29, 2012 (AFP) - Mali's desert north has fallen into the hands of Islamist hardliners over the past six months, sparking regional and international fears of a new haven for extremists in north Africa.
The insurgents, boosted by weapons obtained thanks to last year's upheaval in Libya, swept through the region following a coup in the capital Bamako on March 22.
Ethnic Tuareg desert nomads and Al-Qaeda linked extremists quickly took key towns in northern Mali, a land of ancient caravan routes that is also notorious for drugs and arms smuggling and kidnappings for ransom.
Since then, the hardline Islamists have largely eclipsed their former brothers-in-arms, the secular Tuareg group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
The Islamists, among them local representatives of Al-Qaeda, have imposed strict sharia law and destroyed world heritage-listed religious monuments in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
The Economic Community of West African States, the main regional grouping of countries, is planning to send an intervention force of more than 3,000 troops into Mali.
Below are profiles of the main hardline groups:
-- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) --
AQIM stems from a group started in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists, who in 2007 formally subscribed to Al-Qaeda's ideology.
The group, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, has bases in northern Mali from where it regularly carries out attacks and abductions of westerners in the sub-Saharan Sahel zone.
The group is led by Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel, with several other notorious Algerian extremists leading katibas, or fighting units.
-- Ansar Dine ('Defenders of the Faith' in Arabic) --
This new Islamist movement was formed by renowned Tuareg commander Iyad Ag Ghaly who led a 1990-95 rebellion. He then became a key player in peace talks between the government and Tuaregs during a 2006-2007 rebellion.
Boosted by members of AQIM, Ansar Dine took the towns of Kidal and Timbuktu. In both cases, Ghaly made a triumphant entrance and planted black flags around the captured towns.
In Timbuktu, his forces chased out the Tuaregs and ordered women to cover themselves with veils.
Unlike the MNLA, Ansar Dine does not demand independence for the north but wants the strict implementation of its hardline interpretation of sharia law.
-- The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) --
MUJAO, which has long been presented as an AQIM splinter group, advocates jihad, or holy war, in West Africa. It has claimed a number of abductions in the northeast of the country, but also in neighbouring Algeria where it has also claimed several attacks on Algerian forces.
In June it seized the northeastern town of Gao, ousting the MNLA after deadly clashes between the once-allied groups, in which at least 35 people were killed.
Recent reports, confirmed by Malian government security sources, say that hundreds of Islamist fighters have arrived in northern Mali from other countries, notably the Moroccan-ruled territory of Western Sahara and Sudan. However the Tuaregs of the MNLA have denied those reports.
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