By Stephane Barbier / AFP
BAMAKO: Mali’s new leader threatened to wage total war on Tuareg rebels and Islamists controlling the north of the country as he took the oath of office Thursday, ending a brief period of military rule.
Dioncounda Traore, the former legislative speaker, was sworn into office in the capital Bamako at ceremony attended by, among others, the junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo who grabbed power in a March 22 coup.
“I swear before God and the people of Mali to preserve the republican regime… to respect and ensure respect for the constitution… and Mali’s territorial integrity,” Traore said.
He immediately threatened to unleash “total war” on the Tuareg rebels, radical Islamists and outlaws who seized control of the desert north of the vast country in the wake of the March coup unless they ceded control.
The rebels must “stop the… pillaging, the rapes, they must leave the cities that they have occupied,” Traore said moments after taking the oath.
If they don’t “we will not hesitate to wage a total and relentless war.”
The junta had justified toppling former president Amadou Toumani Toure on grounds that the government was not effective in resisting a rebellion by Tuareg rebels that they rekindled in January.
But following the coup, the rebels vastly strengthened their position, capturing key northern towns including fabled Timbuktu and sparking warnings of humanitarian disaster in an area already facing acute food shortages and drought.
Traore must organize elections within 40 days, according the terms of a transition deal negotiated by the West Africa bloc ECOWAS, which hit the junta with heavy sanctions and forced it to stand down.
The ECOWAS mediator, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, will this weekend meet with the junta leaders and Malian politicians to chart out the transition period.
ECOWAS has lifted its sanctions against land-locked Mali and agreed to give amnesty to all those involved in the coup as part of the transition deal.
Several observers believe the junta will retain key ministerial posts, notably defense, as the army tries to reverse the massive rebels gains.
ECOWAS has raised the prospect of sending a force of up to 3,000 men to try to reclaim northern Mali, but security sources say the bloc must first clearly define the mission’s mandate.
Amid the political chaos in the south, the Tuareg — many of them heavily-armed and battle-hardened from last year’s Libya war — stepped up their long-simmering separatist campaign in the north.
Joined by Islamist extremists linked to Al-Qaeda’s north Africa branch (AQMI), they made dramatic gains, taking over an area the size of France including the legendary caravan town of Timbuktu in the weeks since the coup.
The vast area is now in the hands of the Tuaregs’ Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), armed Islamist group Ansar Dine, as well as arms and drug traffickers.
The European Commission warned that northern Mali could face a “major humanitarian disaster” unless access is given for food and medicine.
The crisis could also “spill over to neighboring countries,” the European Union’s executive arm said in a statement and offered an additional €9.0 million ($11.8 million) in humanitarian aid to the region.
Aid groups have also warned of a humanitarian crisis and abuses against civilians in the lawless area, hit by drought and acute food shortages, where more than 200,000 people have been displaced by the fighting this year.
A video obtained by AFP before, during and after the seizure of the northern hub of Gao shows a city riven by chaos since the March 31 rebel takeover.
The previously unpublished footage shows empty prison cells, fleeing residents and looted Red Cross warehouses.