Tuesday, April 3, 2012

France fears Al-Qaeda allied to Mali rebels

France fears the Tuareg rebellion that has just seized control of half of Mali is increasingly dominated by Islamists that are "closely tied" to Al-Qaeda, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Tuesday.
In an interview with AFP, Juppe urged the UN Security Council to pass a resolution recognising the Islamist threat, and urged countries in the region to work together more closely to battle Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The minister said that, while some of the rebels are battling for an independent Tuareg homeland in eastern Mali, others have fallen under the influence of AQIM, the North African wing of the global extremist group.
"Apparently, there are two opposing tendencies among the Tuaregs. On one hand, the MNLA wants independence for Azawad, which is unacceptable to us because we're very committed to Mali's territorial integrity," he said.
"Then, there's another faction, Ansar Dine, which is closely tied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Its goals are not clear, but it may be to install an Islamic regime across the whole of Mali," Juppe continued.
While Juppe suggested Tuareg territorial claims could be addressed with a Malian national dialogue leading to a form of regional autonomy, he called on regional governments to take a tough line with the Islamists.
"We need a collective response across the region against this Islamist threat, which stretches from Libya as far as Nigeria," he warned.
"Only regional cooperation drawing in Algeria, Mauretania and ECOWAS with the support of France will allow us to make progress against terrorism. It is in this spirit that we have asked the UN Security Council to speak out."
A Tuareg rebellion in Mali has gained momentum in recent weeks after the return of fighters once in the pay of the late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, and after a March 22 military coup left government forces in a shambles.
Juppe said the rebels, a mixture of separatist and Islamist forces, had advanced as far as Mopti, Mali's third city with a population of more than 100,000, 460 kilometres (285 miles) east of the capital Bamako.
"We don't know if the rebellion plans to head further south. The situation on the ground is very confused, notably in the Mopti region, and could change at any moment," Juppe warned.
"Some of the rebels may be content to control the northern territories. Others, with AQIM, may plan to take over all of Mali, in order to create an Islamist republic," he said.
"I note that the chief of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghaly, is very linked to AQIM and that in recent weeks his movement has gained more and more importance."
As Juppe was speaking in Paris, a security source in Mali told AFP that the MNLA leader had met in the recently fallen town of Timbuktu with the three top leaders of AQIM: Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam.
Juppe said that the involvement of AQIM in the Tuareg rebellion would complicate France's struggle to free six French hostages among 13 Europeans being held by the group following a series of kidnappings in the region.
But he said there was no prospect of direct French military intervention in the conflict, although Paris could provide logistical support to militaries from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS if they intervene.
He also urged Algeria, which has the most capable military in the region but which is forbidden by its own constitution from intervening beyond its borders, to do more to help coordinate the regional battle against Al-Qaeda.

Russian Church: under attack after backing Putin

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Orthodox Church said on Tuesday it was under attack from unspecified "anti-Russian forces" seeking to erode its authority after it threw its weight behind Vladimir Putin before last month's presidential election.
The unusually strongly-worded statement listed a recent protest performance by an all-girl punk band in Moscow's main cathedral as well as media allegations against Patriarch Kirill as examples of such attacks.
"The attacks have become more prominent during the pre-election and post-election period, which shows their political and also anti-Russian motives," the Supreme Church Council said in a statement posted on its website.
The Council called on Orthodox Christians to come to cathedrals across Russia on April 22 for a nationwide prayer "in defense of the faith, desecrated sanctuaries, the Church and its good name".
The Church's unequivocal support for the ex-KGB spy has angered many members of the anti-Kremlin protest movement in Moscow and other large cities, who view it as political meddling and an abuse of the church's position in society.
Seen as a modernizing figure in the Russian church, the largest in Orthodox Christianity, Patriarch Kirill called the 12 years of Vladimir Putin's rule a "miracle of God" ahead of the March 4 election, which Putin won convincingly.
In recent years, state TV has given a much higher profile to the Church, Kirill is frequently shown in the company of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, and the church has been granted the role of a de facto policy adviser to the Kremlin on an array of issues that affect people's everyday lives.
Kirill said the church felt threatened by the apparent upsurge in hostility against it.
"Today we are witnessing a powerful anti-Church rhetoric which has unfortunately coincided with Lent," Kirill told the Council, calling on clerics to come up with an appropriate response.
In February five masked performers from the Pussy Riot band clad in short dresses and multi-colored tights stormed the altar of Moscow's Christ the Saviour Church singing "Holy Mother, Throw Putin Out!". Three band members are currently under arrest.
The statement listed three other incidents in March in which Orthodox churches were desecrated, priests beaten and icons destroyed. It said all the events were part of the campaign against the Church.
Meanwhile Kirill himself has become a target in pro-opposition media outlets whose authors question his alleged role in dealings around duty-free alcohol and tobacco imports in the 1990s as well as his alleged wealth.
"Anti-Church forces fear the rising role of the Church in the country. Such people are few in numbers but some of them wield influence and are ready to use their resources to discredit the clerics," the statement said.
The Church said it was also being ostracized by "those pushing through radical liberal values" for its stern opposition to homosexual marriages, consumerism, the spread of violence and adultery.
The statement could help Putin, who will be inaugurated as president on May 7, to further discredit his opponents among liberal intellectuals eroding their support base among the nascent middle class.
The public debate over the Pussy Riot incident exposed a rift in the Church between the more liberal clerics who called for forgiveness and hardliners who wanted the performers to be severely punished.
The Council sided with the hardliners in the statement saying that the lack of repentance could only "push the sinners into committing their sins again".
Endorsed by Kremlin leaders as Russia's main faith, the Orthodox Church has grown increasingly powerful and rich after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union where religion clashed with Communist ideology and was barely tolerated.
Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev as well as their wives Lyudmila and Svetlana openly practice their faith. Putin sought the blessing of a famous Byzantine icon in a remote monastery before embarking on the election campaign.
(Reporting by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Kevin Liffey)