OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – A secular rebel group seeking independence in northern Mali said late Wednesday it has appointed a civil administrator for the region of Kidal, signaling it is retaking control of the government there as French forces battle radical Islamic fighters.
The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, has been reasserting its presence in Kidal since the French-led intervention forced many of the extremists into the surrounding desert.
Mohamed Aly Ag Al Bessati was chosen Tuesday for the position, according to NMLA representative Moussa Ag Assarid.
"Today our priority is to protect people and property," he said. "These people need an administration to better lead activities and regain daily life."
The secular rebels have said they are willing to work with the French forces but not Malian troops, whom they accuse of committing reprisals against the lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs.
"We can't entrust our destiny to any army that executes our families," Assarid said.
By comparison, Malian soldiers have bolstered the French presence in the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu that also had been overrun by the radical Islamic fighters.
The Tuareg separatists who make up the NMLA have long sought independence from Mali, and their rebellion last year triggered a March coup in the distant capital.
In the aftermath, the Tuaregs and Islamic extremists had both made rapid advances across northern Mali and the poorly armed Malian soldiers fled.
For several months, the Islamic extremists controlling northern Mali coexisted with the secular Tuareg rebels who want their own state.
The black flag of the extremists fluttered alongside the multi-colored one of the secular rebels, each occupying different areas of the towns.
In late May 2012, the two sides attempted to sign a deal, agreeing to create an independent Islamic state called Azawad.
The agreement between the bon vivant Tuareg rebels and the Taliban-inspired extremists seemed doomed from the start. It fell apart days later. By June, the Islamic extremists had chased the secular rebels out of northern Mali's main cities.
However, a French-led military operation launched in mid-January forced the radical Islamists to flee northern Mali's major towns.