Mali’s government is seeking talks with a former Tuareg rebel leader over worries he is planning to stir the desert nomads into mounting a fresh uprising, said government and military sources.
Several hundred former fighters, along with truckloads of weapons, have spilled into Mali’s north from Libya in recent months, deepening fears of instability in a zone where ex-rebels, al Qaeda cells and drug runners operate.
Lyad Aghali, a former leader of a Tuareg rebellion, left his home in the northern Mali town of Kidal last week to join a massing group of fighters in the hills, the sources said. The Tuareg have long sought an independent homeland in the Sahara-Sahel region and have fought several uprisings, Reuters reports.
“The authorities have sent emissaries to Lyad to restore order, but there’s no word yet,” said a military official who asked not to be named. “We are waiting to see if they respond with attacks,” he said.
A top government official, also seeking anonymity, confirmed a delegation had been sent.
Aghali was one of the top Tuareg commanders during the uprisings in the 1990s and played a role in the most recent rebellion that ended in 2009. He is believed to have ties to members of al Qaeda’s north African wing, which has conducted a rash of recent kidnappings in the zone.
Four Europeans and a South African have been kidnapped in northern Mali since last week, and a fifth foreigner was killed, though no one has claimed responsibility.
Mali military authorities estimate that as many as 3,000 Tuaregs who had fought for toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have come into Mali through Niger and Algeria. The U.N. has also expressed concern about weapons leaving Libya.
The Malian sources added that a commander of a local security force in Kidal – made up largely of former rebels – had also recently left with about 55 men.
“It has been a few days since the commander deserted with about two-thirds of his men to join up with Lyad Aghali in the hills,” the military source said.
Many Tuareg, known for their indigo blue scarves and turbans, backed Gaddafi because he supported their rebellion against Mali and Niger in the 1970s and later allowed more than 100,000 of them to settle in southern Libya.
While concerns are mounting, there have been no signs yet the Tuareg ex-fighters are planning a new uprising. Tuareg officials were not available to comment.