While both African and European leaders continue to warn against partition in Mali, the rival movements backing a new, independent state in the north of the country have failed to follow through on a joint agreement to form the Islamic Republic of Azawad, leaving the project uncertain and raising suspicions that their show of unity masked deep divisions.
The Tuareg-dominated National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was reported to have signed an agreement with the Islamic Ansar Dine movement in the northern city of Gao on 25 May. But in the days that followed, contradictory briefings, interviews and communiqués from both sides have suggested the document prepared after three weeks of talks was at best preliminary, with disagreements resurfacing as a final communiqué was worked on.
Strong misgivings have been voiced by MNLA supporters over what many see as a surrender to Ansar Dine's allegedly theocratic agenda. Ansar Dine's leader, Iyad a Ghali, who was reportedly not party to the signing of the document in Gao, has been a strong champion of Sharia Law, which has not featured in the MNLA's programme.
Speaking to IRIN from Paris after the signing of the Gao agreement, MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatomane played down differences between his movement and Ansar Dine, arguing that the Islamic movement's militancy had been greatly exaggerated. "We have always shared the same objectives, even if our methods were different," said Ag Acharatomane.
Other defenders of the Gao entente have stressed Ansar Dine's readiness to shed any links with Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and other extremist organizations operating in northern Mali, stressing such groups will be given no stake in the new Azawad.
But there is evidence of serious hostility towards Ansar Dine from within the MNLA.
An “open letter” from MNLA supporters in Gao to the movement's secretary-general, Bilal Ag Achérif, noted with alarm "the fundamentalist posture, particularly that of Salafist Jihad", displayed by Ansar Dine, and expressed its “strong disapproval in relation to the project of a fusion between the MNLA and the Islamic group Ansar Dine", urging the MNLA to break the accord as quickly as possible.
Whatever differences exist between Ansar Dine and the MNLA on the form the new Azawadian state, the authorities in Bamako remain adamant that Mali will remain united. Government spokesman Hamadoun Touré said the adminsitration "categorically rejects any idea of the creation of a state of Azawad".
Speaking to IRIN, the parliamentary representative for Timbuktu, El Hadji Baba Haidara, said the MNLA's alliance with Ansar Dine showed its real intentions: "MNLA tried to woo Western governments by preaching moderation and distancing itself from radical Islam," Haidara argued. "The agreement shows that the MNLA and Ansar Dine are one and the same. For how many centuries has Mali been a Muslim country? People in the north have never asked to be `liberated’ in this way."
Haidara said he was ready for a military solution in the north if necessary. "These people took over our territory by force and they can be removed by force." But he acknowledged that the Malian army was not in position at present to carry out a successful military campaign.
Doubts over 2013 elections
Whatever happens in the north, the authorities in the south look ill-equipped to resolve the crisis. The departure of Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traoré to Paris to receive medical treatment for injuries sustained in an assault by demonstrators in Bamako, has left Capt Amadou Haya Sanogo and an uneasy coalition of soldiers and civilians steering national policy. Hopes that a Traoré-led interim administration could pacify the country and leave the way clear for elections in 2013 look increasingly fragile.
While the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has signalled its readiness to deploy a standby force, calls for direct military action, both from Mali's neighbours in West Africa and outside, have been muted.
Speaking in Paris, current head of the African Union, President Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin, called for the UN Security Council to authorize the creation of an African force for Mali, similar to the one dispatched to Somalia, if only to avoid "a West African Afghanistan". Yayi rejected the notion of a new state on Malian territory.
The European Union has also strongly rejected any blow to Mali's territorial intergrity. Newly elected French President François Hollande has been cautious about committing France to any form of military action, while backing ECOWAS in finding a peaceful solution, a task currently assigned to Burkinabe President Blaise Compaoré.
Sources: RFI, El Watan, AFP, Le Monde
*This replaces IRIN’s 30 May report which was substantially overtaken by events