Malian Tuareg separatists lose key support faction

An influential Mali tribal chief has withdrawn his support for separatists fighting for an independent state in the deeply divided west African nation, according to a statement seen Friday by AFP.

Intalla Ag Attaher's tribes of the northern Iforas mountains were a key partner in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an armed collective of ethnic Tuaregs which rose up against the state last year.

"I, the undersigned Intalla Ag Attaher, patriarch and head of the tribes and factions of the Iforas Mountains, certify that I have resigned from the MNLA on this day," said the undated statement.

The move would be a huge blow to the ambitions of the MNLA, which claimed a chunk of Mali's vast desert north and still occupies the key town of Kidal.

Attaher is thought to be more than 90 years old and is revered and respected by Tuaregs throughout the Kidal region, where almost no move, political or paramilitary, can be made without his consent.

The document did not specify the reasons for the resignation but Attaher's son, lawmaker Mohamed Ag Intalla, said his father had left to lead the High Council of Azawad (HCA), a new group launched to unite all armed groups in the north.

"My father will now run the HCA. We want peace with Mali. We do not want independence. We want development," Intalla told AFP.

"My father wants to gather everyone. It is with the HCA that we will make peace."

The crisis in Mali began when the MNLA in January 2012 relaunched a rebellion for independence of the north, overwhelming Mali's troops and sparking a coup in Bamako.

This opened the way for hardline Islamists to chase out their former Tuareg allies and seize key northern cities.

France intervened in Mali in January and has since pushed the Al-Qaeda-linked militants into desert and mountain hideouts, from where they are staging guerrilla attacks.

The MNLA has refused to give up its weapons or take part in presidential elections slated for July until negotiations have taken place with the Mali government.

In an interview with the French-based Euronews television channel on Thursday, Mali's President Dioncounda Traore said he was "ready" to talk to the MNLA but rejected any demands for autonomy.