Fighters from al-Qaida's North African branch helped an ethnic Tuareg rebel group attack a town in northern Mali this week, Mali's government said Friday.
The allegation was immediately denounced by the Paris-based spokesman of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, the Tuareg group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks on five towns in the past 10 days.
“There were no other fighters other than NMLA fighters who took part in the attack,” Tuareg leader Moussa Ag Acharatoumane told The Associated Press by telephone on Friday. “I reject the statement that fighters from AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) fought with us.”
As the Tuareg rebellion enters its second week, questions emerging about the identity of the fighters. Local officials and Tuareg experts say that a large number of the fighters are Tuaregs that fought as hired guns for Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, then returned to Mali after the fall of his regime.
But an al-Qaida offshoot, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, has also made its home in the north of Mali. AQIM claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of five foreign tourists in two northern towns last year, as well as the killing of a German tourist.
The al-Qaida group, however, has traditionally not attacked in Mali even through they maintain at least three bases in the country. The group has kidnapped over 50 foreigners since 2003 and nearly all the kidnappings happened in neighboring countries. The hostages were then brought back to AQIM bases in Mali where they are held during ransom negotiations.
In a statement, the ministry of defense said Tuesday's attack on the town of Aguelhok was led by “jihadists from AQIM” in addition to members of the NMLA. The statement said that important losses were registered, but it did not say how many people were killed.
“We've heard all this before. Every time Mali finds itself unable to battle our fighters, the Malian government tries to link us to terrorists,” said NMLA leader Ag Acharatoumane. “We reject all forms of terrorism. Our intention is to get rid of the drug traffickers and AQIM from our soil.”
The Azawad is the traditional home of the Tuaregs in northern Mali, and the rebel group says they are fighting for it to become autonomous. The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert, have risen up against the central government in Mali three times since the country's independence from France in 1960.
Previous rebellions, including the most recent which ended in 2009, have in part been sponsored by Gadhafi, who claimed to have blood ties to the Tuaregs. He felt such affinity with the ethnic group that he entrusted a part of his security to the Tuaregs, and it was Tuareg guides who evacuated his son to Niger across the massive desert border after the fall of Tripoli.