Daniel Howden: A dispute in the desert is now a global security issue

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The weapons and fighters that have flooded south through the Sahara may be new but the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Mali has colonial roots. The design of the country by the French left the Tuareg minority of the north under the notional control of an often hostile south, and the results have mirrored those of similar carve-ups across Africa.

Decades on from independence, there has been no development in desert areas and the Tuareg community has rebelled against its marginalisation. Peace agreements have been reached and then largely ignored by the capital, Bamako.

Now, the backwash of Tuareg men and guns that flowed out of Libya after the fall of Colonel Gaddafi has reignited a moribund rebellion and shattered the status quo in Mali. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) that has emerged is calling for a separate Tuareg homeland. And it has been able to drive home its claims by overwhelming desert garrisons and withstanding air assaults that would have defeated past uprisings.

The rebels have deployed heavier weapons than the Malian forces have faced before. The extent of their popular support is unclear. Predictably, Tuareg soldiers in the armed forces have defected but there is little sign of broad support for the dream of Azawad among Tuaregs in the south.

International attention is focused on the relationship between the MNLA and the al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb, which has evolved from a group battling the Algerian government into a full-blown terror group.

The presence of the al-Qa'ida affiliate turns a local dispute into an international security issue. Prior to the Tuareg rebellion, there was frustration in the West at Bamako's unwillingness to act against the al-Qa-ida allies, and a tougher line will be demanded as the government seeks military support in its fight against the Tuareg rebels.