The rebel group that recently seized control of Mali's three main northern cities, in a maneuver that effectively partitioned the country in two, announced a cease-fire Thursday, saying they had reached their military goal.
Moussa Ag Assarid, a spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, said the group was declaring the cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid to resume in the north, where shops were looted.
The rebels launched their insurgency in January, saying they wanted to establish an independent Tuareg homeland in the north, known as the Azawad. They only succeeded in taking small towns until late last month, when disgruntled soldiers stormed the presidential palace in the distant capital of Bamako, overthrowing the democratically elected president.
In the confusion that followed the coup, the rebels launched a new offensive and succeeded in taking the capitals of the three main northern provinces: Kidal, which fell last Friday; Gao on Saturday and Timbuktu on Sunday.
"The NMLA has reached the end of its military operations for the liberation of the territory of the Azawad," said Assarid, speaking by telephone from Paris.
"Since the day before yesterday when our units reached Douentza which we consider to be the frontier of the Azawad," he said, referring to a town some 600 kilometers (375 miles) from Bamako, "the military offensive is declared over."
Assarid's group is the largest rebel group involved in the offensive, but it is not the only one, and in the three main towns in the north, local officials say they cannot be sure which of the rebel armies has the upper hand. Extremely worrying for Western observers is the presence of an Islamist faction called Ansar Dine, which planted its ominous black flag in all three of the provincial capitals. This week, the group announced it was imposing Sharia (Islamic law) in the ancient city of Timbuktu.
The mayor of Timbuktu said nearly all of the estimated 300 Christians based in the city fled after Ansar Dine's spiritual chief Iyad Ag Ghali gave an interview on local radio outlining the tenets of Sharia: Women are to be covered at all times, thieves will have their hands cut off and adulterers will be stoned.
"The problem for us is that we don't know who is the master of our town," said the mayor, Ousmane Halle, who explained that the Islamist faction had taken over the city's military camp, while the secular rebels were stationed at the airport.
"What I deplore is the departure of the Christian community," he said in the city which has been honored as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its collection of ancient Islamic manuscripts, propagating a moderate interpretation of the religion.
"Many said to me that they are obliged to leave. And they are right. I cannot guarantee their safety. And these are people that have lived side by side with us for centuries."
The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday condemned the March 21 military coup, calling for the immediate restoration of constitutional rule. In a statement read by US Deputy Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the council called on the rebels to cease all violence.
"Mali has never experienced such a situation," Mali's UN Ambassador Omar Daou told the council. "Our people are divided. Our country is threatened with partition."
Once a diplomat assigned to Mali's consulate in Saudi Arabia, the Islamist leader Ag Ghali used to be in regular contact with the United States Embassy in Bamako, according to diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. For years, he was a Tuareg rebel leader and acted as a go-between when foreigners were kidnapped by a branch of al-Qaida based in the north of Mali. Although he is believed to be in touch with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, there is no evidence that he himself has taken part in terrorist activities.
The imposition of Sharia has worried analysts and country watchers. Besides Timbuktu, the Ansar Dine faction is accused of destroying bars in Gao and Kidal, and of forcing shopkeepers in those two towns to take down pictures of unveiled women.
Assarid, the Tuareg group spokesman, insisted that his group has the upper hand.
He said Ag Ghali "will not be allowed to oblige the people to practice his religion. If he tries to do so, we will ask to see his electoral list — it will be a democracy and people can choose, just as they chose the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt."