Mali Tuareg rebels declare independence in the north

Civilians arrive in Bamako fleeing rebel advances in Timbuktu
Many civilians fled looting and chaos as rebels advanced in the north

A rebel group in northern Mali has declared independence for a region it calls Azawad, after seizing control of the area last week.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) made the statement on its website, adding that it would respect other states' borders.

The MNLA is one of two rebel groups to have gained ground in the area after Mali's government was ousted in a coup.

The African Union has condemned the declaration as "null and void".

Former colonial power France and the European Union have also said they will not recognise Azawad's independence.

Meanwhile, the UK has closed its embassy in the capital, Bamako, and withdrawn its staff.

The army seized power on 22 March, accusing the elected government of not doing enough to halt the two rebel groups - the MNLA and an Islamist group opposed to independence, which wants to impose Islamic law, or Sharia, across the whole country.

'Brink of disaster'

The declaration comes as rights group Amnesty International warned that Mali was on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster in the wake of the rebellion.

It demanded that aid agencies be given immediate access to the country after days of looting, abduction and chaos in the northern towns of Gao, Kidal and the historic city of Timbuktu, which have all been taken by the rebels.

On Thursday the MNLA rebels declared a "unilateral" ceasefire after the UN Security Council called for an end to the fighting in Mali.

A statement posted on the rebel website on Friday proclaimed independence, adding it would respect existing borders with neighbouring states and adhere to the UN Charter. The statement also called for recognition from the international community.

"We completely accept the role and responsibility that behoves us to secure this territory. We have ended a very important fight, that of liberation... now the biggest task commences," rebel spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher is quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

The Tuareg people inhabit the Sahara Desert in northern Mali, as well as several neighbouring countries and have fought several rebellions over the years, complaining that they have been ignored by the authorities in distant Bamako. But the Tuareg are not the only people who live in the area they claim as Azawad.

Islamists and Tuareg

Journalist Martin Vogl in Bamako says there are two main interpretations for why the MNLA made its declaration now.

Firstly, he says it could be intended to forestall a possible intervention by the West African regional body, Ecowas and secondly to show that it, rather than the rival Ansar Dine group, is in charge of the north.

But he also points to problems with the proclamation, such as the absence of a referendum to prove a popular mandate, as well as reports that the Islamist rebels may control more areas than the MNLA.

Ecowas military chiefs met on Thursday in Ivory Coast. Afterwards, they said they had discussed a proposed force's rules of engagement and would await a response to their suggestions from the region's heads of state. A 2,000-strong force has been put on standby, while France has promised logistical support.

The MNLA was formed last year, partly by well-armed Tuareg fighters returning from Libya, where they had backed former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But the UN has voiced alarm at the presence of Ansar Dine, which has links to an al-Qaeda franchise which operates in the region.

Correspondents say that Western powers are more concerned by a growing Islamist threat throughout the region than a Tuareg issue which is considered a political internal problem.

The MNLA could possibly expect greater autonomy rather than independence if it came back to negotiations and helped fight the Islamists, they say.

Mali has been in disarray ever since the 22 March coup enabled the rebels to secure territory in the north.

People are continuing to flee the area and buses to the capital have been packed with people desperate to get out. Reports say the situation in the northern town of Gao, in rebel hands, is particularly tense.

The Algerian government also says seven of its staff were kidnapped by unknown gunmen in Gao. The consul and six colleagues were forced to leave their diplomatic mission at gunpoint.

The Algerian government says it is doing all it can to find them.

Ecowas has closed Mali's borders to trade, frozen its access to funds at the central bank for the region's common currency and slapped travel bans on the coup leaders and their supporters.

The coup and Tuareg rebellion have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in Mali and some neighbouring countries, with aid agencies warning that 13 million people need food aid following a drought in the region.