Tuareg rebels attack US plane as insurgency in Mali intensifies

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Tuareg rebels have opened fire on a United States military aircraft that was flying in supplies for beleaguered Malian troops, pinned down on the fringes of the Sahara Desert.

Mali's forces have been battling a Tuareg insurgency in the north of the country in recent weeks after a spate of raids and ambushes. The United States, worried that West Africa might become a haven for al-Qa'ida and other Islamic militant groups, has been sending military experts across the lawless unpoliced deserts of the Sahara for several years to provide counter-terrorism training but this is believed to be the first time the US military has lent a helping hand in a domestic operation.

"It was not a normal event. We do not do this day to day," Major John Dorrian, spokesman for the US European Command that also covers Africa, said yesterday.

The American Hercules was hit by AK-47 fire over the northern village of Tin-Zawatine near the border with Algeria in the early hours of Wednesday, but there were no casualties and the plane managed to return to base in the capital city, Bamako.

The light-skinned Tuareg, known as the "Blue Men of the Desert" because of their trademark indigo gowns and turbans, complain they are not represented by the national black African-dominated government, based more than 1,000 miles away to the south, and are demanding more autonomy.

More militant members of the nomadic group have begun an active campaign under the leadership of Ibrahima Bahanga, rekindling memories of sustained revolts in the 1960s and the early 1990s.

In the last two weeks Bahanga's men have ambushed at least three military convoys in the mountainous and desolate border regions, capturing several dozen government soldiers and seizing vehicles and ammunition. They have also been blamed for laying mines to cover their tracks, killing at least 13 people.

The attack on the US plane came just days after western ambassadors had expressed their concern at the unrest in the West African country, condemning hostage-taking and the use of landmines that put the civilian population at increasing risk.

Similar unrest has hit neighbouring Niger, around the fabled city of Agadez. The Tuareg-led Niger Movement for Justice has killed almost 50 soldiers over the last seven months, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency. Officials from both countries have said the uprisings were linked and asked for foreign assistance.

US military officials said the Malian government had asked them to fly in supplies to troops in Tin-Zawatine, as they happened to be in the region following a training exercise. But Major Dorrian would not rule out the prospect of providing similar support in future. "Any such request would be handled on a case-by-case basis," he said.

Analysts say the key to ending the low-level insurgency was dialogue.

"There are no formal negotiations taking place between new Tuareg groups and the government of Mali," said Nana Adu Ampofo, an analyst at London-based group Global Insight in a recent briefing note. "Since Bahanga is overtly campaigning for concessions in access to government resources and regional development outlays, any lasting peace will require a concord of some order between the two."