Feuding militant groups in Mali's desert north

Mali's desert north has fallen into the hands of Islamist hardliners in the past three months, sparking regional and international fears of a new haven for extremists in north Africa.

The insurgents swept through the region amid a power vacuum created by a March 22 coup in the southern capital Bamako.

Ethnic Tuareg desert nomads and Al-Qaeda linked extremists quickly took key towns in northern Mali, a land of ancient caravan routes that is also notorious for drugs and arms smuggling and kidnappings for ransom.

Since then, the hardline Islamists have largely usurped their former brothers-in-arms, the secular Tuareg group who have long demanded an independent homeland they call Azawad.

The Islamists, among them Al-Qaeda's regional franchise, have imposed strict shariah law and started destroying world heritage-listed religious monuments in the fabled city of Timbuktu.

West African group ECOWAS is considering sending an intervention force of more than 3,000 troops into Mali, sparking a threat from the Islamists that nations taking part will become targets.

Below are profiles of the main groups:

Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA)

The Tuareg, nomadic desert tribes known for their indigo turbans, have long felt marginalised and waged several rebellions in past decades, demanding independence for "Azawad", their ancestral homeland.

The MNLA formed in late 2011 when it was boosted by the return of armed, battle-hardened Tuareg who had fought as mercenaries for Libya's dictator Moamer Kadhafi before he was killed in last year's uprising.

In a series of lightening strikes after the March 22 coup, the MNLA seized the three northern cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, joined in their campaign by Islamist rebel groups.

However, since then their Islamist battlefield allies pushed them out of Gao and Timbuktu to impose sharia law, an interest the MNLA does not share.

The MNLA is led by secretary general Bilal Ag Acherif and head of the political wing Mahmoud Ag Aghali, according to its website. In early June, it created a so-called Transitional Council of Azawad State, presided over by Bilal Ag Acherif.

Ansar Dine ('Defenders of Faith' in Arabic)

This new Islamist movement was formed by renowned Tuareg commander Iyad Ag Ghaly who led a 1990-95 rebellion.

He then became a key player in peace talks between the government and Tuareg during a 2006-2007 rebellion.

Ansar Dine made its presence on the northern battlefield known in February with the release of a video seen by AFP in which it said it wanted to impose sharia law in Mali and named Ag Ghaly its commander.

Both the Tuareg and Ansar Dine fought together for Kidal and Timbuktu.

In both cases, Ghaly made a triumphant entrance and planted ominous black flags bearing Arabic symbols around the captured towns.

In Timbuktu, his forces chased out the MNLA and ordered women to cover themselves with veils, saying they did not want independence, but Islamic law.

Long said to have ties to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ag Ghaly's military victories have seen him flanked by the extremist group's most notorious leaders.

Ag Ghaly, described in US diplomatic cables as an unpredictable and "inscrutable character", had at one point been in the government's good books, and was sent by Bamako as an envoy to Saudi Arabia.

He was reportedly expelled from that country in 2010 for having links to jihadists. While he appears to have abandoned the Tuareg national cause, the details of why remain murky.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

AQIM stems from a group started in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists, who in 2007 formally subscribed to Al-Qaeda's ideology.

These Islamists, numbering around 300, have spun a tight network across tribal and business lines that stretch across the sub-Sahara Sahel zone, supporting poor communities and protecting traffickers.

They are comfortable operating in the harsh desert terrain and have made millions of dollars from ransoms of European hostages.

Along with a splinter group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), AQIM has been holding more than a dozen Western hostages.

A notorious AQIM leader, the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar who has been sentenced to death for attacks in his home country, has appeared in Timbuktu alongside Ag Ghaly.

He is known as "the uncatchable" or "Mister Marlboro" for his smuggling activities.

Also operating in the Sahel -- often in a symbiotic relationship with AQIM and Tuareg tribes -- are various criminal groups involved in drugs and weapons trafficking who could benefit from the political disarray.

The offshoot MUJAO kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats in Gao in April.

This week it claimed responsibility for an attack against Algerian paramilitary police that killed one person and wounded three.

On Friday it threatened countries who would join an intervention force, warning that its branches "in several countries are ready to strike the interests of countries that intend to participate in the force of ECOWAS".

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