News24

New Mali militia leaves Timbuktu to 'avoid bloodbath'

2012-04-28 10:02

Bamako - An Arab militia has pulled out of Mali's desert city of Timbuktu, hours after entering the town, amid power struggles in the lawless region more than a month after a coup shook the country.

A vast area about the size of France has been contested by Tuareg separatists, Islamic extremists and other irregular forces in the power vacuum that followed a March 22 putsch in the capital in Mali's south.

A new group - the National Liberation Front of Azawad (FNLA) - rolled into the fabled Sahara city of Timbuktu on Friday with about 100 vehicles packed with men described as "armed to the teeth" by a security source.

The group has declared it opposes both the secession of northern Mali - as demanded by the Tuareg nomads, many of whom are hardened veterans of the Libyan conflict - and the imposition of strict Islamic law.

Bloodbath

However, the FNLA later said that militant group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had demanded they leave town.

Abdelhamid "Abu Zeid, the leader of AQIM himself, asked us to leave our positions in Timbuktu. To avoid a bloodbath whose main victims would be civilians, we left the city," one FNLA leader, Ahmed Ould Cherif, told AFP.

A security source confirmed that the "FNLA fighters left the city of Timbuktu on Friday night. It is AQIM who asked for their departure."

The confusion in northern Mali - rife with arms and drugs smuggling and kidnappings, and now hit by drought and food shortages - has worried regional powers who have also demanded a return to democratic rule in Mali.

On Thursday, the west African regional group Ecowas agreed in an extraordinary meeting to send a military force into Mali, though those troops will be based in the capital Bamako for now.

The 15-member Economic Community of West African States said the troops would help with Mali's transition to civilian rule. It was unclear, however, when the troops will arrive, and which nations will send them.

Under an Ecowas-mediated deal, the junta has handed power back to a civilian government and agreed to elections within a year.

Ironically, the soldiers had justified their power grab by accusing the government of incompetence in fighting the rebellion.