UPDATE 3-Mali rebels declare independence in north
* Independence is 50-year-old dream of Tuaregs
* Sweep of north has seized towns including Timbuktu
* Neighbours nervous of secession, security vacuum (Adds French rejection)
By Bate Felix
BAMAKO, April 6 (Reuters) - Mali's desert Tuaregs proclaimed independence for what they call the state of Azawad on Friday after capturing key towns this week in an advance that caught the newly-installed junta off guard.
Nomadic Tuaregs have nurtured the dream of secession since Mali's own independence from France in 1960 but have little foreign support for a move neighbours fear could encourage other separatist movements. Paris immediately dismissed the move.
This week's seizure of Mali's north - a desert zone bigger than France - came with the help of arms and men spilling out of Libya's conflict. It was backed by Islamists with ties to al Qaeda, triggering fears of the emergence of a new rogue state.
"The Executive Committee of the MNLA calls on the entire international community to immediately recognise, in a spirit of justice and peace, the independent state of Azawad," Billal Ag Acherif, secretary-general of the Tuareg-led MNLA rebel group MNLA said on its www.mnlamov.net home page.
The statement, which listed decades of Tuareg grievances over their treatment by the distant southern capital Bamako, said the group recognised borders with neighbouring states and pledged to create a democratic state based on the principles of the United Nations charter. Continued...