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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Mali rebels say preparing for battle in Sahara

DAKAR, June 8 (Reuters) - Malian Tuareg rebels holed up in mountains deep in the Sahara desert said on Thursday government forces were preparing to attack them and vowed to fight back as they campaign for more autonomy.

Speaking from a hideout in the Tirharrhar mountains north of Kidal, a remote outpost in northern Mali, rebel spokesman Eglasse Ag Idar said the insurgents could see armoured vehicles and troops massing on the rock-strewn desert plains below.

"It's a climate of war not a climate of negotiation. If we are attacked we are obliged to defend ourselves. We are making preparations," Ag Idar told Reuters by satellite phone.

"We can see armoured cars, troops, a military plane shuttling in and out," he said.

The light-skinned Tuareg nomads, known for their indigo turbans, staged revolts from Kidal in the 1960s and early 1990s demanding greater freedom from a black African-dominated government over 1,000 km (600 miles) away in the capital Bamako.

The insurgents attacked army camps in Kidal last month, looting vehicles and weapons before retreating to surrounding hills, raising fears of a return to a full-scale revolt.

Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure has called on the rebels to discuss their demands and grievances but the security forces have taken a tougher line, saying they are determined to hunt down those behind the attack on Kidal.

"Our position is clear. These people should not remain on our national territory. The army is determined this time to finish with this issue once and for all," a senior defence ministry official in Bamako told Reuters.

"We have reinforced our positions on the ground, the morale of our troops is very good, and we are ready to intervene anywhere on our territory be it over hills or over rocks. We are just waiting for the green light from the politicians," he said.


Some analysts and politicians fear a heavy-handed attempt to subdue the rebels by force could win the latest insurgency -- so far limited to the Adrar des Iforhas region around Kidal -- wider support from other nomadic communities in Mali.

President Toure -- known by his initials ATT -- said on Saturday in a visit to Gao, southeast of Kidal, that there was still time to resolve the dispute through talks.

But Ag Idar said that while the rebels had heard media reports of the government's willingness to negotiate, there had been no such official communication and he said the Tuareg leaders wanted an international mediator.

"There has been no contact. Neither side has confidence in the other. We want contact to be made through a mediator, a foreign mediator -- we leave the choice to ATT," he said.

Media reports have suggested the government would ask neighbouring Algeria to mediate in the dispute but the authorities in Algiers have declined to comment.

Algeria and Libya have long competed for influence in Mali's north, where foreign oil firms have started serious prospecting over the past two years. Libya backed the 1990s Tuareg rebellion but leader Muammar Gaddafi has condemned the latest violence.

Ag Idar said the army clearly had the upper hand in numbers and firepower but said the insurgents numbered around 1,000 men, including army deserters, disenfranchised former rebels and armed, unemployed youths arriving on camels. (Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako)
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