Mali’s foreign minister said that nations in the Sahara were not doing enough to stop an Islamist threat spreading across the region and urged more intelligence-sharing and joint military operations.
In an interview with Reuters, Tieman Coulibaly also accused Mali’s Tuareg separatist rebels of “Ku Klux Klan” abuses by persecuting non-Tuaregs in Kidal and said this did not bode well for talks aimed at including the northeastern town in next month’s election of a new president to complete a post-coup transition to democracy.
A string of attacks in Niger including on a French-run uranium mine have shown how Islamist rebels have taken advantage of a security vacuum since French-led forces drove al-Qaeda-linked fighters from strongholds in northern Mali this year, Reuters reports.
Regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for Paris and its Western allies, with a lack of cooperation between Saharan countries helping militants to melt away when they come under pressure and regroup in quieter parts of the vast desert.
“We must coordinate better,” Coulibaly said in the interview in Paris. “We need a constant effort to share information and be able to act together against this threat.”
Security officials say lawless southern Libya has become the latest haven for Islamist groups. Paris has put the blame firmly on these groups for attacking its embassy in Tripoli in April.
“This is a threat to everybody – Niger , Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Algeria and beyond,” Coulibaly said. “We must do more.”
Regional nations met in March in Mauritania to discuss how to put better mechanisms in place to share information and to assess ultimately how to launch joint security operations. The same countries are due to meet again in Algeria in the coming days for further consultations, Coulibaly said.
France, which is keen to cut its troop numbers in the region, has said it would support all regional efforts.
But, amid persistent bickering and mistrust among regional powers, President Francois Hollande admitted in May that French forces may have to be used elsewhere in the Sahel.
France’s immediate priority now is to ensure the situation in its former West Africa colony remains stable and that presidential elections proposed for July take place as planned all across the vast impoverished country.
But tension over Kidal risks turning public opinion against France, which was feted for liberating Mali’s north from Islamist occupation but has since faced criticism for allowing armed Tuarags to reassert control in the desert town.
Talks have started between the central government in Bamako and the Tuareg rebels, known as the MNLA, who control Kidal to try to reach a deal that would allow its inhabitants to go to the polls.
But Coulibaly said the situation was “worrying” in Kidal, where hundreds have been rounded up. He accused the MNLA of committing “racist and segregationist acts” against non-Tuaregs that was forcing the Malian army to move towards Kidal.
“I think the talks will slow down because we can’t continue talking with people that are transforming themselves into a Ku Klux Klan while we’re proposing to negotiate peace,” he said, referring to the American far-right white supremacist group.
“We are sticking to our position which consists of restoring the administration in Kidal including the army.”
The MNLA has denied that detentions in Kidal were based on race, saying only that some 10 people had been taken into custody after being identified as Malian soldiers “sent to spy on us”, and were now considered prisoners of war.
The elections are due to conclude a transition to democracy following a military coup in April 2012 that led to Mali’s north falling under Islamist insurgent domination for nine months.
Coulibaly said there was still time to reach a deal with the MNLA but without security in Kidal it would be difficult to hold the elections. “The ball is no longer in our camp,” he said.
“All resolutions taken by the United Nations call for the restoration of the territorial integrity of Mali. If they are not respected then Mali and its partners will be forced to apply them.”