The war in Libya might be officially over, but violence continues to erupt regularly inside the country – and now it is spilling over to West Africa, where a Libya-fueled war is escalating in the northern deserts of Mali.
The death of Moammar Gadhafi brought an end to the Western military intervention in Libya, and the global spotlight soon shifted away to the Syria uprising. Yet fighting continues in Libya and Mali, little noticed by the world.
And while Mali has become the hardest-hit country, it is not the only one affected by a flood of weapons and military veterans from Libya, analysts say. Other countries in West Africa, including Nigeria and Mauritania, are also reported to be suffering from the influence of the ex-Libyan fighters.
Inside Libya, hundreds of armed militias are still active, often clashing with each other in bloody battles in the streets. Armed raids, killings, illegal detention and torture are being committed by the militias, according to human rights reports. One city alone, Misrata, has a reported 250 separate militia groups.
In Mali, meanwhile, a rebellion by nomadic Tuareg separatists has been greatly strengthened by the return of battle-hardened Tuareg fighters from Libya, where they were serving in the Gadhafi military until the demise of the Libyan dictator.
The rebels, who launched an offensive in northern Mali on Jan. 17, are reportedly using heavy weapons that they obtained from Libyan military arsenals, including portable missile systems, anti-tank rockets and machine guns mounted on four-wheel-drive vehicles.
They have attacked at least seven towns and are advancing towards the town of Kidal, the biggest town in the north. Dozens of rebels and government soldiers have been killed.
Mali’s army on Thursday deployed helicopter gunships to launch airstrikes against the rebels, seeking to halt the rebel advance on Kidal. But the rebels seized the strategic town of Tinzawatene, on the border of Algeria, when government forces retreated into Algeria after two days of fighting.
About 60,000 people have been forced from their homes by the rebellion. More than 20,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring countries such as Niger and Mauritania. Many of the refugees are facing a potential humanitarian catastrophe because of drought and food shortages in the places where they are seeking shelter.
The rebellion has sparked angry protests and street demonstrations in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Many people in southern Mali are blaming the government for failing to provide proper equipment and weapons to its soldiers.
In the latest sign of public anger, the wives of military personnel were shown on television, confronting Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure, and criticizing him for his failure to defeat the rebellion.
“A soldier in battle should not run out of ammunition and there shouldn’t be shortages of food for soldiers either,” one woman reportedly told the president.