BAMAKO Mali's desert Tuaregs proclaimed independence for what they call the state of Azawad on Friday, a secession bid swiftly rejected by its African neighbors and foreign capitals from Paris to Washington.
The nomadic people has nurtured the dream of a Saharan homeland since Mali's independence in 1960 and has come closer than ever to attaining it by seizing key northern towns this week while the capital Bamako was distracted by a coup.
Neighbors fear the creation of a new state could encourage separatists elsewhere, while the presence within the rebellion of Islamists with ties to al Qaeda has sparked wider fears of the emergence of a new rogue state threatening global security.
"The Executive Committee of the MNLA calls on the entire international community to immediately recognize, in a spirit of justice and peace, the independent state of Azawad," Billal Ag Acherif, secretary-general of the Tuareg-led MNLA rebel group MNLA said on its www.mnlamov.net home page.
The statement listed decades of Tuareg grievances over their treatment by governments dominated by black southerners in the distant capital Bamako. It said the group recognized all borders with neighboring states and pledged to create a democratic state based on the principles of the United Nations charter.
It was datelined in the town of Gao, which along with the ancient trading post of Timbuktu and other northern towns fell to rebels in a matter of 72 hours this week as soldiers in Mali's army either defected to the rebellion or fled.
Reuters Television pictures from Gao taken hours before the overnight website declaration showed jubilant MNLA soldiers celebrating in the local governor's residence, decked with an MNLA flag and re-christened "The Palace of Azawad".
The territory claimed as Azawad roughly corresponds to the three northern regions of Mali which make up a zone larger than France. The term is thought to have linguistic links to the dried up Azawagh tributary of the giant Niger river which snakes through West Africa from Guinea to Nigeria.
The 54-state African Union rejected the independence call as "null and of no value whatsoever", urging the rest of the world to shun the secession bid. Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said his country could never accept a break-up of its neighbor.
The U.S. State Department rejected the MNLA independence call and ex-colonial power France said it was now up to Mali's neighbors to see whether talks were possible with the MNLA - a move that could target an autonomy deal short of independence.
"The demands of the northern Tuareg population are old and for too long had not received adequate and necessary responses," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said, while stressing that any deal should leave Mali's borders intact.
GAO A 'GHOST TOWN'
A Gao resident told Reuters the city had become a 'ghost town', patrolled by a few dozen Tuareg fighters in four-wheel-drive vehicles with machineguns. Most of the other Tuareg forces had withdrawn but it was not clear why.
Shops, banks and administrative buildings had all been smashed or burned since the weekend, said the resident, who did not want to be named for his own safety.
Many residents were fleeing in cars, buses and trailers for Niger, Burkina Faso or Bamako. "Half the population has left the town," the resident said. "Everything is smashed and burnt, it's dramatic ... If humanitarian organizations don't intervene in a week, it will be a catastrophe."
Initial reactions in Bamako were of dismay.
"This is really a bad joke," Toure Alassane, a 42-year-old native of Timbuktu said at a gathering of about 200 northerners protesting against the move in the capital.
"It will never work. You don't just declare independence when people don't have food to eat and nothing is functioning in the north," he said. Widespread food shortages caused by the failure of last year's rains have been aggravated by insecurity.
In the northern town of Kidal, one resident said control was not in the hands of the MNLA but of the Ansar Dine Islamist group which wants to impose sharia, Islamic law, across Mali.
"Nothing goes without their say," the resident said.
The advance capitalized on confusion in Bamako after a March 22 coup by mid-ranking officers whose main goal had been to beef up efforts to quash the rebellion.
In a sign of growing foreign concern, Britain said it was temporarily closing its embassy and pulling embassy staff out of the country, "given the unstable and unpredictable situation in Mali and the continuing lack of constitutional rule".
Mali's worried neighbors see handing power back to civilians as a precondition for moves to help stabilize the country and have imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions aimed at forcing junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo to step down.
On Thursday a team of mediators expressed hope Sanogo would soon announce steps that would allow them to drop the sanctions on Africa's third largest gold miner, which include the closure of borders and the suspension of its account at the regional central bank. There was no immediate response from the junta.
ECOWAS, the 15-state West African bloc, is preparing a force of up to 3,000 soldiers which could be deployed in Mali with the dual aim of securing a return to constitutional order and halting any further rebel advance.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet put the MNLA's fighting strength at a maximum 3,000, and that of Ansar Dine at about one tenth that number. He said France could provide an ECOWAS force with logistical help including transport.
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako; Ange Aboa in Abidjan; John Irish and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Arshad Mohammed in Washington; writing by Mark John; editing by Tim Pearce)