Tuareg rebels ready to help French forces in Mali
Ethnic Tuareg separatists are ready to support the French military intervention in Mali by taking on Islamist rebels on the ground in the north of the country, one of their senior officials told AFP on Monday.
"We're ready to help, we are already involved in the fight against terrorism," Moussa Ag Assarid, a representative of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), said by telephone from northern Mali.
"We can do the job on the ground. We've got men, arms and, above all, the desire to rid Azawad of terrorism."
The MNLA, which is seeking a Tuareg homeland in much of the north of Mali, an area it calls Azawad, has played a major role in Mali's troubled recent history.
A rebellion launched in January 2012 triggered a military coup in the capital Bamako two months later, creating the political vacuum that enabled Islamist groups to seize control of the north.
The MNLA initially allied itself to the Islamist groups but soon found themselves sidelined as an extreme form of Islamic law was imposed across an area larger than France.
Considerably weakened, the movement began peace negotiations with the Malian authorities in December and dropped its demand for independence in favour of a request for self-rule.
On Sunday, the organisation warned the Malian army not to push into the north of the country without a prior political agreement on autonomy.
Because of the defeats it imposed on the Malian army at the start of 2012, the Tuaregs are concerned about a possible settling of scores if government troops regain control of the north on the back of the French bombing campaign.
"We don't want to see the Malian army in Azawad without a prior accord between the two parties," said Assarid. "We are ready for talks aimed at finding a solution."
The MNLA official was speaking from Tinzawatane in the far north of Mali, where the movement has been in congress for the last few days.