AU Rejects Mali Rebel Group's Independence Proclamation

The African Union on Friday rejected a declaration of independence by Tuareg rebels in the north of Mali and urged the rest of the international community to shun the rebels' secession bid.

The head of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping, "firmly condemns this announcement, which is null and of no value whatsoever. He calls on the international community as a whole to fully support this principled position of Africa," read a statement issued by the continental grouping.

France, Mali's former colonial ruler, also dismissed the independence declaration by Tuareg rebels, with French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet saying that a unilateral declaration of independence "that was not recognized by African states would have no meaning."

Separately, the European Union also rejected the rebel's independence declaration, and urged all sides involved to engage in talks to resolve the issue. The European bloc instead that it still respects Mali's territorial integrity and stressed that it will not support the break-up of the West African nation.

The international responses came just hours after Mali's Tuareg rebels declared independence for a region known as 'Azawad' after seizing control of the area late last month. The rebels had seized the area in a three-day offensive amidst the chaos triggered by a military coup that ousted the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure.

"We solemnly proclaim the independence of Azawad as from today," Mossa Ag Attaher, a spokesman for Mali's National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), said on France 24 television. They also posted a statement to this effect on the group's website.

Taking advantage of the chaos triggered by a March 22 coup, the MNLA rebels seized a large part of northern Mali with the help of Islamist militants who want to impose Islamic law across the whole of the West African state. However, the Islamic militant group Ansar Dine, which assisted the MNLA in seizing control of the region, has denied any involvement in MNLA's independence plans.

The MNLA had declared a unilateral ceasefire on Thursday, stating that the group has already seized control of enough territory to create an independent "Azawad" state on the edge of the Sahara. The MNLA said it decided to end of military operations from midnight Thursday after "the complete liberation of the Azawad territory and given the strong request by the international community."

The Tuareg uprising demanding independence began decades ago, but intensified after the return of hundreds of Tuareg fighters who fought in Libya last year on behalf of slain dictator Col. Moammar Qadhafi. It is reported that dozens of soldiers have been killed in fighting Tuareg insurgents in recent months. The conflict has also forced more than 200,000 people to flee the Azawad region.

Last month, rebel soldiers seized power in Mali after overthrowing the regime of President Toure. The coup was triggered by dissatisfaction among a large section of the military over government's failure to address their demands for better supplies and arms to tackle the Tuareg uprising in the North.

Earlier this week, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had imposed diplomatic as well as trade and financial sanctions on Mali after the new military rulers ignored an April 2 deadline to return power to the country's democratically-elected government. Taking the regional grouping's lead, the African Union also imposed similar sanctions on Mali.

On Wednesday, the UN Security Council (UNSC) strongly condemned the coup in Mali and urged its military rulers to return power to the democratically-elected government. The UNSC also urged the Tuareg rebels to end all hostilities, and noted that continued presence of Islamic militants in Mali could further destabilize the security situation in the region.

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