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Analyst Says Mali Troop Buildup Raises Risk for Renewed Violence

By Phuong Tran
22 October 2007

In Mali, the government continues to build up its troops in the northeast, the scene of recent fighting and hostage-taking. A rebel leader says he will not release hostages until government soldiers pull out. Phuong Tran brings us this report from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

A Mali Ministry of Defense spokesman, Nouhoum Togo, says the government will continue sending troops despite the demands of rebel leader Ibrahim Ag Bahanga.

Togo says the government refuses to accept violence, and will not back out because of threats. He says the government considers the fighters terrorists, rather than rebels. The defense spokesman says the state has no choice but to send more armed troops to the area.

He says civilians are not safe because of landmines, which the government has accused Tuareg rebels of planting.

Fighting in the past two months has led to dozens of deaths, and about 40 government soldiers have been taken hostage. About half were released, after intervention from Tuareg leaders.

But they refuse to negotiate further until the government stops sending in troops.

Analyst David Zounmenou, with the Cape Town-based Institute for Security Studies, says this standoff puts at risk a month-long cease-fire, the second since rebel violence flared. He says the government should stop sending in armed forces, which is seen as a threat by Ag Bahanga and his fighters.

"Failure to do this will see Mali slide back into confrontation," he said. "The government really has to change tactics and approach to the problem. If they do not withdraw the troops, he [Ag Bahanga] is going to take it as an offense. We do not know what will come out of it."

The government accuses Ag Bahanga, who has led two other major Tuareg uprisings in the area, of trying to increase control over the northeast desert near Algeria to traffic drugs.

During periodic Tuareg uprisings in Mali and neighboring Niger, fighters have complained of economic neglect and poor treatment by the state.

Tuareg rebels in Niger re-launched attacks against the government there earlier this year that led to at least 45 deaths.

They deny any link with Malian rebels. But security officials note strong cultural ties, similar war strategies and smuggling networks between the two fighter groups.

In an effort to end rebel violence in Mali, President Amadou Toumani Toure recently announced a two-million-dollar fund aimed at development in northern Mali.

Peace deals in both Mali and Niger brought an end to major fighting more than a decade ago, but sporadic unrest has continued.

Both countries remain among the poorest in the world, with high numbers of unemployed youth, and worsening land conditions that threaten the nomads' struggling pastoral livelihood.

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