update from gao
Just got back from a short journey up to Gao. The situation is tense in the North, but the road to Gao itself is clear. Private vehicles are discouraged of course, but traveling on public buses is no problem. Gao is under heavy military presence, patrols of miitary in the street every night. North of Gao to Kidal, the route is unsure. Adagh Voyage is still making its run to Kidal, but one way -- cars are full coming into Gao, but empty returning to Kidal. People are reporting to be crying/pleaing for seats on buses to leave Kidal. Many of the posts along the route have been abandoned. Equally so south to Niamey -- the police have abandoned their post at the border and moved it North to Ansongo. For the 90 kilometers south from Ansongo to the border, there is no military. A few of the posts are guarded by Ganda Koy militas. But the territory is effectively Azawad.
It's difficult to ascertain rumour from fact. Every phone call in Mali now is preceded by the obligatory inquiry -- 'is everything alright in Gao/Kidal/Timbouctou'. Cities continue to be attacked. Niafounke, for example, is under constant siege every night. Kidal was given an ultimatum -- civilians were told to leave the city by Feb. 4th -- and the other night, there was mortar fire (directed outward, by the military, fearing an attack). Rebels still hold Menaka, but Ganda Koy continues to patrol and secure the population.
The MNLA has recruited heavily from the Malian military, and Tamashek military are falling suspect. One young soldier was killed in Niafounke for apparently passing information for the rebels, whilst in fact he was talking with his girlfriend on the phone. Tamashek are fleeing Mali. Most everyone has fled Kidal, Sonrai leaving for Gao, Tamahsek crossing into Algeria. A huge group of refugees arrived at the Burkina border but are being held by authorities waiting to enter, ongoing discussion with ATT.
The president is pleading for calm in the face of attacks on Tuareg businesses in the south, fearing similar attacks on Bambara in the North. The rebellion itself is not drawn along ethnic lines, it's rumoured there are at least 30 Sonrai in the MNLA near Aguelhoc, and that former Ganda Koy fighters have joined the rebellion.
AQMI is an afterthought -- no one is talking about them (save that the second attack on Aguelhoc was rumoured to be an AQMI attack, not Tuareg, as 'they looked like Arabs'), except when it comes to foreigners. The lack of security makes it fairly easy for banditry and as there is a price on foreigners, one is advised to keep a low profile.
Governmental officials are taking the situation seriously. The rebellion is at a level not seen since the 1990s. Timbouctou Kel Ansar along with the Bambara ruling classes, initially trying to pass this off as Libyan banditry, now have a full rebellion on their hands. Casualties are being largely unreported (one source quoiting 115 military dead at Aguelhoc -- including civilian casualties who were attacked clearing the bodies). Public opinion amongst the Tuareg is swaying towards Azawad, but with a realization of the cost of the looming war, which most agree would be best avoided.