The Tuareg rebels who unleashed Mali's descent into chaos are seeking to reassert themselves on the political scene now that French-led troops have routed the Islamists who hijacked their rebellion.
The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) precipitated Mali's unravelling on January 17, 2012, when its members -- many armed with weapons recently brought back from Libya, where they fought for slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi -- launched a rebellion in the north.
It was the latest in a long line of uprisings among the Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic North African people who have fought Mali's central government on and off since the country gained independence from France in 1960.
After teaming up with armed Islamist extremists in the region and humiliating the Malian army -- so badly that a group of mid-level officers staged a coup d'etat on March 22, exacerbating the chaos -- the MNLA declared independence for the new state of Azawad, the Tuareg name for their homeland.
But their alliance with the Islamists was short-lived.
More interested in sharia than independence, the Al-Qaeda-linked groups overpowered the MNLA and planted their own black flags across the north, ruling their territory with brutal repression until France sent in fighter jets, attack helicopters and 4,000 troops to drive them out.
Amid the ongoing conflict, the MNLA has sought to re-assert its relevance, claiming to have "chased the terrorists from several towns in Azawad" and passed along intelligence to French forces "top terrorist officials" it said it had arrested.
The group also said it had welcomed French troops in "full brotherhood" into the northeastern town of Kidal, the last Islamist bastion to fall.
The MNLA called on France not to let Mali's own troops secure Kidal, a request Paris appeared to grant, giving the job to 1,800 Chadian soldiers.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France had "functional relations" with the MNLA but that fighting terrorists alongside them was "not our objective".
The MNLA runs a vigorous public relations campaign from France and Burkina Faso.
Observers say it gets a boost -- particularly in France -- from the mythic image of the Tuareg, or Kel Tamasheq, a fiercely independent people who have lived in the region for 2,000 years and are known as the "masters of the desert".
Some say the MNLA has hijacked that mystique.
"Why do the media get so carried away when they talk about the Tuareg community?" asked Foreign Minister Mohammed Bazou of Niger, which also has a large Tuareg population.
"The MNLA doesn't represent the Tuareg. They've never been elected by anyone. The Tuareg community in Mali is beyond these people's grasp."
Historian Gregory Mann, a West Africa specialist at Columbia University, warned France it would be risky to ally with the MNLA, as Paris, eager to map an exit strategy, looks for partners to share the peacekeeping burden in Mali.
"This idea of allying to some extent with the MNLA... might be somewhat short-sighted in so far as it's going to be extremely difficult for (Mali's) central government to negotiate with the MNLA," he said.
"There are legitimate concerns on both sides about recent war crimes and atrocities, and also about a long history of aggression."
But Mali, a country of 14 million people whose bow-tie-shaped map circumscribes a vast sprawl of territory and peoples, will have to address the grievances of its estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Tuareg to escape the current crisis.
Interim president Dioncounda Traore has offered the MNLA a place at the negotiating table in return for renouncing its demand for an independent state.
The MNLA may also be able to help negotiate the release of seven French hostages kidnapped in Mali and Niger by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2011 and 2012 who the Islamists are believed to be holding in the Kidal region, said Alain Antil of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
"They are going to give advice, information, hoping to be at the negotiating table in the political process," he said.
"The MNLA obviously have a card to play."