DAKAR The leader of al Qaeda's North African wing has put his group's fighters in Mali's north at the disposal of Ansar Dine rebels seeking to impose Islamic law across the West African state, the first public comments officially linking to two groups.
Fighters should impose sharia only gradually and look to collaborate, not clash, with separatist rebels also operating in Mali's north, the head of AQIM said in speech posted on the internet and translated by the SITE jihadist monitoring service.
The comments by Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, also known as Abdelmalek Droukdel, firm up reports of cooperation between al Qaeda and Iyad Ag Ghali's Ansar Dine rebels, who swept across Mali's north in an awkward alliance with Tuareg rebels seeking to create an independent desert state called Azawad.
The ties will also add to concerns over deepening lawlessness across the Sahara and complicate regional efforts to find a negotiated solution to the rebellion in Mali, whose capital has been thrust into chaos since a March 22 coup.
Droukdel called on AQIM fighters to "practice all their field activities concerning the sharia-implementation project in the Azawad region under the cover of (Ansar Dine) and keep the cover of (AQIM) limited to our activities in the global jihad".
SITE said the comments were made in a speech posted by Sahara Media on its website on May 23.
There have been reports of collaboration between AQIM and Ansar Dine and witnesses said local al Qaeda leaders have been spotted in areas under Ansar Dine control. But neither group had previously officially commented on their connection.
AQIM emerged from Algeria's GSPC Salafist movement and has factions operating out of both Algeria and the Sahara-Sahel band, where it has risen to prominence in recent years with the kidnapping of Westerners for multi-million dollar ransoms.
Droukdel called for the gradual imposition of Islamic law across Mali's north, where the population is mostly Muslim but where there have been several protests against Islamists.
"Know that it is a mistake to impose all the rules of Islam at once on people overnight," he said.
The secular MNLA rebels have previously publicly called for international support so they can defeat the Islamists.
But the group currently appears militarily weaker than the Islamists and its officials have confirmed that talks are on-going with Ansar Dine over the future government of Mali's northern regions currently under their control.
"Avoid as much as you can problems with the (MNLA), and stay away from provoking them as much as you can. Invite them to cooperate to establish the common ground and reject the conflicts," AQIM's Droukdel said.
With Mali's military and political leaders still bickering over who should run the country, whose president was ousted in the March 22 coup, there are fears that Mali's north is turning into a safe haven for Islamist militant groups and international criminals.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis)