Nomadic rebels now armed to the teeth after fall of Gaddafi

The Times

To cries of Allahu akbar and the din of heavy weaponry looted from Colonel Gaddafi’s arsenals, Tuareg rebels rode out of the desert on January 17 to attack the flyblown town of Ménaka in eastern Mali.

The veiled warriors, historically known as the Blue Men because of their distinctive flowing indigo robes and black headscarves, struck at dawn, their armoured column approaching army and National Guard posts, sending the government troops fleeing.

In successive months they waged a lightning brand of desert warfare, striking on multiple fronts and humiliating the Malian Army with a series of defeats.

The offensive, sparked by the return of hundreds of Tuareg fighters from service in Gaddafi’s army, is the biggest repercussion outside Libya of the end of the Colonel’s regime. Given the purported links between Libya’s triumphant rebels and al-Qaeda’s regional offshoot, it has had Western security agencies watching closely.

Many Tuaregs were members of the Islamic Legion set up by the Libyan dictator in 1969 to help to create a unified Islamic state in north Africa, but stayed on and took Libyan nationality when the Legion was disbanded in the 1980s.

Yet, the fall of Gaddafi was more catalyst than cause. For more than a century, Tuareg separatists have been struggling to preserve their autonomy against the encroachments of the outside world. Initially these took the form of French military expeditions.

Later, declarations of independence by Mali and Niger in 1960 dismembered Tuareg autonomy at the stroke of a pen.

Borders imposed by a distant European power — too often straight lines brooking no allowance for history, geography or tribe — have made a fierce assault on Tuareg self-sufficiency.

Tuaregs are a Berber nomadic people who now mainly populate the Saharan parts of Niger and Mali.

Successive Malian governments made little investment in health, education or development in Tuareg areas. They derided the Tuareg as bandits who relied on black slaves for labour.

Feeling powerless and persecuted, the Tuareg rebelled, again and again.

The difference now is that, energised, organised and well-equipped, the rebels are closer to their goal than ever before.

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