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Mali's Tuareg rebels declare independent state of Azawad

But world leaders reject the Tuareg state, which some suspect is allied with Islamic extremists.
Clone of mali rebels timbuktu 2012 04 01Enlarge
Mali's Tuareg rebels have declared northern Mali to be the independent state of Azawad. The contested area includes the fabled center of Timbuktu. Here a resident of Timbuktu walks past the restored City of 333 Saints Djingareyber Mosque. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

Mali's Tuareg rebels are on a roll.

In the past week they have seized control of all the major towns of northern Mali, including Gao and the fabled Timbuktu.

Today the rebels declared northern Mali to be the independent state of Azawad, according to AP.

"We, the people of the Azawad [desert region] proclaim the irrevocable independence of the state of the Azawad starting from this day, Friday 6 April 2012," stated the rebels on the website of the the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA).

They said the new nation would be in line with the principles of international law and justice.

The NMLA rebels seized the initiative in the confusion of last week's coup in Mali, where a group of disgruntled mid-ranked officers grabbed control of the government in Bamako and forced the president, Amadou Toumani Toure, into hiding.

Related: Timbuktu falls to Tuareg rebels (PHOTOS)

Is Azawad the culmination of the Tuaregs' 50 year quest for an independent homeland?

Or is it evidence of new aggression from an Islamic extremist force?

No matter what it is, other African nations and the international community don't like the sound of Azawad.

The African Union of 54 African states quickly said Azawad is "null and void," according to the Guardian.

Neighboring Algeria said it does not recognize the new country. France said Azawad "means nothing," reports AP. The European Union quickly added that an independent Azawad is "out of the question."

More from GlobalPost: Tuareg verus Toureg: What's in a name?

Most importantly, West Africa's power brokers, the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are against Azawad, too, and are planning to send troops into Mali, according to CBS.

The military heads of 13 of Mali's neighbors gathered in Ivory Coast to draw up a strategy to send troops into Mali to push back the rebels in the north, as well as to restore constitutional rule over the whole country.

Related: Mali coup backfires

It is not clear who is in control of the Tuareg rebels.

The NMLA has declared Azawad to be a secular state. But it seems that a significant element of the NMLA are Islamists determined to impose Shariah law, according to AP. Residents of Timbuktu and Gao report by phone to AP that Islamist men with beards are driving around in pickup trucks and ordering women to wear veils.

The Islamist rebels may well be aligned with Al Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb (AQIM), which is extending its reach across the Sahel region of North and West Africa.

And there is continued confusion in Bamako, where regional sanctions imposed earlier this week are already causing shortages of gas and other essential goods, according to the BBC, which reports that the British government is urging all British citizens to leave Mali.

Just as Senegal reasserted the strength of its democracy in West Africa, with the relatively peaceful election of new president Macky Sall, Mali appears to be falling apart.

Until very recently Mali was widely considered to be another stable democracy in West Africa, with elections just a few weeks away.

Now it appears the country will see foreign troops and fighting in the capital, Bamako, in the south and in the vast, treacherous desert of northern Mali.

More from GlobalPost: More questions than answers in Mali 

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