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.