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Will Mali be Africa's Afghanistan?

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Crowded playing field

Those problems have long been rooted in corruption and underdevelopment in northern Mali, which has helped spur periodic uprisings by some local Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic people related to North Africa's Amazighs, or Berbers.

In recent decades Islamist groups have also appeared in Mali – notably Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – uncontested by authorities and funded in part by increased drug trafficking.

Last year Tuareg fighters who served Libya's Muammar Qaddafi returned home, flush with heavy weaponry. Better armed than ever before, some of them swiftly launched a rebellion under the newly formed National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

While secularist, the MNLA entered a marriage of convenience with Islamist militant groups already present in Mali's north.

Today, nearly a year of conflict has transformed Mali into a crowded playing field, dominated by armed groups that jockey with local leaders, religious figures, and citizens organizations in a tense balance of power.

Last March, Mali's poorly equipped Army struggled to defeat these armed groups. Feeling inadequately supported by the government in their attempts to secure the north, exasperated Army officers staged a coup that toppled President Amadou Toumani Touré.

The coup backfired. As central control collapsed in Bamako, MNLA and Islamist militants descended on northern Mali's main cities, sweeping the region under their control in a matter of days.

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