DAKAR - After a military coup toppled president Amadou Toumani Touré and rebels took control of northern Mali, regional negotiators are now grappling with a complex political and security crisis requiring the quick formation of a credible government and caution over armed intervention, analysts say.
Swathes of the desert north, including the key towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, have been seized by the Ansar Dine Islamist militia, who have ties to Al-Qaeda and have imposed strict Islamic law that they would also prescribe for the whole country. Mali's interim government is unelected and weak and its leader, President Dioncounda Traoré, is yet to return home after being attacked and injured by a mob at the presidential palace in May.
Insecurity has curtailed aid operations in the north, causing more misery to a population already struck by a harsh drought. More than 340,000 Malians have fled their homes to other regions and neighbouring countries.
Peace efforts by the regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), are yet to make an impression and sending a 3,000-strong force is being considered. ECOWAS has requested authority to deploy but the UN Security Council has asked for more details about the mission.
"Any military intervention, unless it is heavily backed by Western countries, will get very messy. The whole of West Africa could become a nightmare," said Jeremy Keenan, a professorial research associate at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.
"It is difficult for anybody to do anything until there is a government in Bamako [capital of Mali]. There should be some sort of a recognized government immediately. Without that, it is very difficult to get to the next step, which is to get a peace process going," Keenan told IRIN.
Renegade soldiers who overthrew Touré in March said the coup was in response to the government's failure to effectively tackle the Tuareg rebellion in the north, but instead the ensuing power vacuum in Bamako, in the south, made it easier for the insurgents to achieve and consolidate their territorial gains, as government troops offered little resistance.
The discordant ambitions of the Tuareg fighters in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Ansar Dine Islamist militia broke up a fleeting alliance between them soon after the coup, with the Islamists denouncing the separatist demands of the secular Tuaregs, who do not support the strict interpretation of Islam favoured by their comrades-in-arms.
After bloody turf wars, Ansar Dine recently overpowered the Tuareg rebels in Gao, and then desecrated the ancient tombs of revered clerics in the UNESCO heritage city of Timbuktu, where they have also provoked the indignation of residents forced to live under their strict edicts. Ansar Dine is reported to have placed mines around Gao to prevent counterattacks.
"Ansar Dine and MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) are just like international criminals used to causing all forms of terror," said Abba Maïga, an entrepreneur in Gao, whose construction business has collapsed since the Islamist occupation.
"They pretend to act in the name of Islam, whose values they should defend. Unfortunately, these outlaws do what Islam forbids - they steal, rape, kill, lie and are promiscuous," he said.
Timbuktu resident Issa Mahamar said, "Ansar Dine is made up of drug- and arms-traffickers."
In late June, residents in Kidal held a protest against the Islamists, who forcefully dispersed the demonstration.
"The constitution states that Mali is a secular country. Ansar Dine's way is wrong - they don't have any popularity in Kidal," said a local resident who gave his name only as Imrane. He said he was a member of a regional youth movement and resistance against Ansar Dine was simmering.
There are fears that Mali's crisis could destabilize neighbouring states, who are already hosting thousands of refugees. The absence of government authority or control in the country's vast north could provide an opportunity for extremist groups linked to Al-Qaeda to find a safe haven. [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report/95410/SAHEL-Aid-efforts-under-strain-as-refugees-numbers-mount ]
"The crisis is a threat to regional stability, even though it has been largely contained within Mali up to now. Some of the radical Islamist rebel groups now in Mali want to promote Sharia [law] across the Sahel. Meanwhile, the 22 March coup was a setback to West African democracy," said Paul Melly, a journalist and associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, a British think-tank.
Mali's nomadic Tuaregs have led an insurgency for land and cultural rights in the north since the early 1990s. Their attacks intensified in recent years and in January they launched an offensive against government troops. With the arrival of the Ansar Dine Islamist fighters and an influx of arms after Libya's civil war in 2011, they swept through northern Mali with ease, taking advantage of the coup in Bamako.
However, with the MNLA having lost ground to Ansar Dine, a negotiated settlement to the crisis appears increasingly complicated, with growing doubts as to whether the Islamists are interested in a stable and peaceful Mali.
Observers say northern Mali is now home to a variety of armed groups [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report/95339/MALI-Rebels-and-their-cause ] of religious extremists, secular rebels, secessionists and bandits, all with competing interests, including criminal enterprises like trafficking drugs, people and goods. Nonetheless, a peaceful resolution should bring together the main actors, including members of Ansar Dine who are not hostile to negotiations.
The talks should tackle the root causes of Mali's crisis, which include the absence of an inclusive democratic government, the plight of northern Malians, and the role of the military in the country's democracy, said David Zounmenou, a senior researcher at a South African think-tank, the Institute for Security Studies.
"The first step is restoring political coherence in Bamako," said Zounmenou, noting that there was a tense relationship between Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra and President Traoré.
"The next step is to work on the opportunity provided by the Ansar Dine - there are some elements who are willing to negotiate."
Chatham House's Melly said the MNLA would be open to talks, especially after the loss of Gao, while Ansar Dine would be willing to talk on grounds of protecting their economic interests.
"Ansar Dine may be open to compromise. Economic interests - trans-Saharan smuggling of drugs, cigarettes, people - are not much discussed, but are an important part of the picture. Some rebels may be more interested in protecting their business interests than in ideological issues, but of course there is a limit to what government can offer without conniving in trafficking," Melly told IRIN.
Mali will either find peace or the crisis could descend into a situation similar to Somalia's near-endless civil war, in which case an armed intervention would be necessary, Zounmenou said.
"The principle of responsibility to protect will call for a military intervention. It is extremely difficult, and I don't see any country taking that responsibility."