DAKAR, June 1 (Reuters) - Senior members of Tuareg-led Malian rebel group MNLA have ditched a week-old pact with al Qaeda-linked Islamists to turn the desert north of the West African country into an Islamic state, saying it was against their secular principles.
The separatist MNLA, which wants an independent state it calls Azawad, seized the north of Mali in early April with the backing of local Islamist group Ansar Dine, whose goal is to impose sharia, Islamic law, across all of Mali.
“The political wing, the executive wing of the MNLA, faced with the intransigence of Ansar Dine on applying sharia in Azawad and in line with its resolutely secular stance, denounce the accord with this organisation and declare all its dispositions null and void,” said a statement issued by Hama Ag Mahmoud, a senior MNLA figure.
The emailed statement said it was issued in the name of the MNLA as a whole but it was not immediately possible to verify whether this was now the official stance of the rebel group. The dea was also denounced in a separate statement by Magdi Ag Bohada, another senior member of its political wing.
The MNLA and Ansar Dine had reached an often tense accommodation carving up control of key regional centres such as Gao, Kidal and the ancient trading city of Timbuktu.
Locals who for centuries have practised a moderate form of Islam have protested against efforts by Ansar Dine to enforce a strict dress code and to impose sharia punishments on those found drinking alcohol or watching television.
Ansar Dine’s ties to local al Qaeda agents who have been responsible for a series of kidnappings of Westerners in the region have raised wider fears of the emergence of a new “rogue state” acting as a safe haven for terrorist activity.
The MNLA’s declaration of Azawad independence has been ignored internationally - although before the tie-up with Ansar Dine, countries such as France recognised a need for dialogue on some of their grievances against the southern capital in Bamako.
Even there, Mali’s body politic remains in confusion more than two months after a March 22 coup. Caretaker civilian president Dioncounda Traore was physically attacked by protesters in his palace last month and is recovering in France. He has not said when he is due to return. (Reporting by Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Louise Ireland)