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'We, the people': Tuareg rebels in Mali declare new state of Azawad

MLNA via AFP - Getty Images file

Tuareg fighters gather at an undisclosed location in Mali in February, in this photo released by the MNLA rebel movement.

Updated at 8:19 a.m. ET: Mali's desert Tuaregs proclaimed independence for what they call the state of Azawad on Friday after capturing key towns this week in an advance that caught the newly installed junta off guard.

Nomadic Tuaregs have nurtured the dream of secession since Mali's own independence from France in 1960, but have little foreign support for a move neighbors fear could encourage other separatist movements. The African Union said in a statement Friday that its commission chairman Jean Ping "firmly condemned" the declaration, which it said was "null and of no value whatsover."

This week's seizure of Mali's north -- a desert zone bigger than France – by the Tuareg-led MNLA rebel group came with the help of arms and men spilling out of Libya's conflict.

It was backed by Islamists with ties to al-Qaida, triggering fears of the emergence of a new rogue state.

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"The Executive Committee of the MNLA calls on the entire international community to immediately recognize, in a spirit of justice and peace, the independent state of Azawad," Billal Ag Acherif, the MNLA’s secretary-general, said on its French-language website.

MLNA via AFP - Getty Images file

On the move: Tuareg fighters are seen in pickup trucks in an undisclosed location in Mali in February this year, in this picture released by the MNLA rebel movement.

The statement, which listed decades of Tuareg grievances over their treatment by the distant southern capital Bamako, began with “We, the people of Azawad” and invoked “the right of peoples to self-determination” and articles of the United Nations charter about the rights of indigenous people.

'Lasting peace'
It said the group recognized borders with neighboring states and pledged to create a democratic state.

The statement spoke of massacres dating back to 1963 and claimed the Mali government had failed to act as people died during several droughts dating back to 1967.

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It aded that the MNLA wanted to create a "lasting peace."

The statement was datelined in the town of Gao, which along with the ancient trading post of Timbuktu and other northern towns fell to rebels in a matter of 72 hours this week as soldiers in Mali's army either defected to the rebellion or fled.

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French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said Paris firmly rejected the declaration.

"A unilateral declaration of independence, which is not recognized by African states, would not have any meaning for us," Longuet told Reuters.

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The rebels' advance capitalized on confusion in Bamako after a March 22 coup by mid-ranking officers whose main goal had ironically been to beef up efforts to quash the rebellion.

Mali's worried neighbors see the handover of power back to civilians as a precondition for moves to help stabilize the country and have imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions aimed at forcing junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo to step down.

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On Thursday a team of mediators said they were hopeful Sanogo would soon announce steps that would allow them to drop the sanctions on Africa's third-largest gold miner, which include the closure of borders and the suspension of its account at the regional central bank.

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Separately, military planners at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) prepared the mandate for a force of up to 3,000 soldiers, which could be deployed in Mali with the dual aim of securing the return to constitutional order and halting any further rebel advance.

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Ivory Coast General Soumaila Bakayoko said after the talks in the Ivorian economic capital Abidjan there was a "clear will" of all ECOWAS states to address the crisis in Mali, but gave no details on troop commitments or a deployment timetable.

Msnbc.com's Ian Johnston and Reuters contributed to this report.

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