New north Mali Arab force seeks to "defend" Timbuktu
By Bate Felix and Adama Diarra
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Members of Mali's Arab community in the northern town of Timbuktu have formed an armed group to fill the void left by the army's retreat, adding to a host of factions already involved and extending the ethnic dimension of Mali's conflict.
Residents in Timbuktu said the new group, known as the Azawad National Liberation Front, or FLNA, was essentially made up of members of an Arab militia that had been established to defend the town during an advance by Tuareg-led rebels.
After several months of fighting, the rebels - some of whom want independence for the north while others seek to impose sharia, Islamic law - swept through Mali's north last week, taking advantage of a coup in the distant capital which caused the front line to implode.
The rebels have an uneasy relationship, having coordinated attacks against government forces but now finding themselves vying for control of the zones they jointly seized.
Mohamed Lamine Sidad, FLNA's secretary general, told Reuters that the group sought neither independence nor sharia.
"We have our own interests to defend - a return to peace and economic activity," Sidad said by telephone, highlighting the economic clout the Arab trading community enjoys in Timbuktu, one of three northern regions seized by rebels.
Sidad, who said the group sought a peaceful resolution to Mali's crisis, refused to say how many fighters the group had.
Residents said the militia had several hundred members before the rebel advance but were unlikely to match the firepower of either the separatist MNLA rebel group or Ansar Dine, which experts say has links with local al Qaeda factions. Continued...