BAMAKO (AFP) – The vice-president and two military chiefs from a Tuareg rebel group have fled to Niger after being driven from their last stronghold in Mali by Islamist fighters, a security source said Friday.

The men “sought refuge in Niger after their hurried departure from Ansogo” in northern Mali, the regional security source said on condition of anonymity.

“They are currently in Niamey in a small hotel.”

Ansogo recently fell into the hands of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a radical armed group presented as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Mohamed Jerry Maiga is the vice-president of the National Transition Council of the State of Azawad (CNTEA), a body set up to lead the self-proclaimed Republic of Azawad, comprising northern Mali, after the Tuareg unilaterally declared independence in April.

However, the Tuaregs were pushed from their strongholds by Islamists of Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and MUJAO, who have established control, leaving the nomadic people in small groups seeking to survive.

With Maiga were Colonels Assalat Ag Habi and Intala Ag Assayed, former army officers who had deserted to join the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

The president of the CNTEA, Bilal Ag Acherif, was injured on June 27 in the north Mali town of Gao during bloody clashes with the Islamists which saw the Tuareg rebels forced out of the town, which had been their headquarters.

He was taken to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, for medical treatment.

The security source said MNLA army chief Mohamed Ag Najim was hiding in Hassiliabiad, a Malian town near the border of Mauritania.

Azawad is the name given by the nomadic desert tribesman to the vast desert north with its key cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, which makes up an area larger than France and more than half of Mali’s national territory.

The Tuareg rebels spearheaded the regional takeover, wanting independence, but have been pushed out and sidelined by Islamist forces who want a hardline Islamic state.

Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine, is set to meet about 30 MNLA fighters living in the Menaka region in the northeast “to ask them to join him”, an ally, Oumar Ag Cherif, told AFP.

Ag Ghaly is a former Tuareg rebel.

“We were together and we must be together again to apply sharia,” or strict Islamic law, Ag Cherif said.

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