Tuareg separatists offer military help to defeat Mali's Islamists
Separatists ready to help French and West African forces defeat their al-Qaeda-linked former allies, but don't want Malian army back in north
Fearful of being caught in the middle of the conflict engulfing Mali, the country's Tuaregs have offered to put their renowned fighting prowess at the disposal of a French-led campaign to drive Islamic radicals out of the country.
The Tuaregs, a Berber people who have lived a nomadic lifestyle in the region for two thousand years, were instrumental in helping groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seize control of huge swathes of northern Mali last year.
A rebellion launched in January 2012 by a Tuareg separatist movement, the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), inflicted such humiliation on the Malian army that it triggered a military coup in Bamako. In the ensuing political vacuum, the central government lost control of the north to the insurgents.
But the Tuaregs' alliance of convenience with the Islamists quickly disintegrated. AQIM and other Islamists, such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) began to run territories under their control like a particularly brutal medieval emirate.
Greatly weakened, the MNLA in December sought peace talks with the government, dropping its demand for the creation of Azawad, an independent Tuareg homeland. Instead, it sought sufficient autonomy to guarantee that their traditional way of life can continue.
Now, with AQIM, MUJAO and a third Islamist group, Ansar Dine, under attack from French warplanes, the MNLA has seen its chance.
It is trying to broker the Tuaregs' reputation as ferocious fighters to reposition itself in Mali's rapidly shifting political landscape.
MNLA representative Moussa Ag Assarid said: "We can play a decisive role." MNLA fighters would be far better suited to chasing down Islamists in the arid north of Mali than troops from Nigeria, Senegal or other West African states, he argued.
"We know the ground, we know the people. We can be a lot more effective than the West African force will be," Assarid said. The Tuaregs are willing to fight alongside French or West African troops.
But they do not want to see the Malian army return to what they regard as their territory. They are mindful of atrocities carried out in the past and the possibility of score settling over last year's clashes.
"We don't want to see the Malian army in Azawad without a prior accord between the two parties, but we're ready to discuss a solution," Assarid said.
Many Tuaregs were involved, on both sides, in the 2011 conflict in Libya, and one legacy of the weapons free-for-all that followed the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi's regime is that they remain well armed.
But Alain Antil, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations, was sceptical about what the MNLA could bring to the table. "Currently their profile is more media than military," he said. "They were very popular at the start of 2012 but the way they acted in the rebellion has not helped their cause."
The MNLA, accused of raping and pillaging during their offensive at the start of last year, made the fatal mistake of selling weapons to its Islamist allies, arms that were soon turned against it.