Cracks appear in newly signed rebel merger in Mali

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Negotiations between two rebel groups in Mali's north, who signed an initial agreement to merge and create a new Islamic state in the region, have run into problems over the imposition of Shariah law and the influence of an al-Qaeda-linked group, representatives from both groups said Wednesday.

The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, a separatist group fighting for independence, and Ansar Dine, whose fighters want to impose an extreme form of Islam, took over the northern half Mali in late March when a coup in the distant capital, Bamako, caused disorder in the country.

The two groups had often fought together against government soldiers before March, but there has been rivalry between them since they gained control of major towns. Fighters have occupied different parts of each city and sometimes compete for whose flag should fly over key buildings.

On Saturday, the two groups came to an agreement in principle to merge and create a transitional council and an army of the "Islamic State of Azawad," a word the Tuareg people use for northern Mali. Since that agreement, however, negotiations toward a final declaration have stalled, according to the representatives.

A spokesman for the NMLA says it does not want to see a strict form of Islamic law imposed in any new state and is worried about Ansar Dine's links with al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The terror cell is responsible for dozens of kidnappings in the region and attacks on Western targets, including the French and Israeli embassies in Mauritania.

"We don't accept Shariah law. That's never what we wanted," Mossa Ag Attaher, an NMLA spokesman told the Associated Press by telephone from France.

"There are also problems linked to certain concepts, like how the region is going to be governed," Ag Attaher added.

The NMLA wants the new state to ratify the United Nations' conventions which deal with human rights, something Ansar Dine is said to be resisting. Ag Attaher said that Ansar Dine's links with AQIM were also proving a stumbling bloc.

"We can never accept that a movement from outside Azawad comes and controls part of this territory," Ag Attaher said.

AQIM has its origins in Algeria, but was pushed south into Mali starting in 2003. The terror cell is known to operate several bases in Mali's remote deserts and forests, but until the rebels seized the key towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu in northern Mali, their fighters had never been openly seen in the major cities, where AQIM commanders have now been spotted.

Oumar Ould Hamaha, an Ansar Dine fighter in Timbuktu, confirmed that negotiations were proving difficult between the two rebel groups.

"We agree on 80 percent of the subject matter with the NMLA," Ould Hamaha said by telephone. "The most important thing is that we come to a common agreement now."

The NMLA's Ag Attaher said that the negotiators in the northern city of Gao are now waiting for the head of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghali, to arrive there to take part in discussions. Ag Ghali was not present when the initial document was signed.

On Tuesday, the current head of the African Union, Benin's President Yayi Boni, met with the new French president Francois Hollande in Paris, where they discussed the issue of north Mali.

Hollande suggested that the African Union and the body representing nations in West Africa, known as ECOWAS, refer the issue of Mali to the United Nations Security Council.

"What we want is that these institutions go to the U.N. Security Council so that it finds a framework that allows stability to be restored in Mali and the wider Sahel," Hollande said.

The French president said that the France would be willing to help an operation in Mali if it were covered by a Security Council resolution.


Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Bamako, Mali.