As one group of rebels proudly proclaimed the independent state of Azawad in the “liberated” north of Mali last week, their allies were preparing for jihad by cutting off the hand of a “criminal” and forcing women to wear the veil.
11:42AM BST 07 Apr 2012
The rebels, armed with weapons stolen from Muammar Gaddafi’s formidable arsenal, took over an area of the Sahara as big as France in an astonishing 72 hours, taking advantage of the chaotic aftermath of an army coup.
Few of the people they promised to free waited to find out what freedom would be like. Instead, an estimated 250,000 people left their homes, terrified families fleeing with their children and possessions. Many told tales of looting and rape by rebels who now control a vast area in the heart of Africa.
Foreign governments were left scrambling to find out exactly who the rebels were, amid fears that a base for al-Qaeda will now be set up in the Sahara similar to ones in lawless parts of Pakistan and Somalia.
“Our law is a legal war, a sacred war, in the name of Islam,” a bearded leader of the Ansar al Din militia called Omar Hamaha told his supporters in Timbuktu soon after they took control of the ancient caravan town. With its blue men, spectacular mudbrick mosques, and annual music festival under the desert stars, Timbuktu was a fashionable destination for the well-heeled tourist looking for an experience of the Sahara, until 2007 when kidnapping started.
Even more worrying than Ansar al Din were the supporters of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) who streamed into northern Mali with ambitions of setting up an Islamic state. They included men who have made millions of pounds of ransom money by kidnapping foreigners.
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