KIDAL, Mali The leader of the Ansar Dine Islamic group in northern Mali has rejected any form of independence of the northern half of the country and has vowed to pursue plans to impose sharia law throughout the West African nation.
Iyad Ag Ghali's stance could further deepen the rift between his group and the separatist Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) as both vie for the control of the desert region.
"We are not asking for much: just the application of sharia law in the northern and southern regions. We are Malians and we are against the division of Mali," Ag Ghali said in an interview in the rebel-occupied northern city of Kidal late on Friday.
Ansar Dine and the MNLA seized the three regions of northern Mali, about two-thirds of the country, in early April after Malian government forces were left without a command following a March 22 coup.
While the MNLA declared an independent state of Azawad in the occupied region, Ansar Dine, which also has links with al Qaeda's north Africa wing, rejected the idea, saying its objective was to impose sharia law across Mali.
After weeks of awkward joint occupation of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the two groups announced a merger in late May. But the deal was never finalised due to differences over the application of Islamic law.
The groups exchanged fire near Timbuktu last week.
"Ansar Dine wants the unity of all brothers and sisters in Mali around Islam, which is the foundation of our life," said the 57-year-old who once served briefly as Mali's Consul General in Saudi Arabia.
Dressed in a green robe and a white turban wrapped around a matching cap, Ag Ghali declined to have his picture taken. He travels around town with an entourage in an armoured pickup truck, stacked with cases of weapons and ammunitions in the back of the vehicle.
African and Western powers have warned of the growing threat of a power vacuum in Mali to neighbouring countries and many say foreign intervention is needed to retake control of the northern zone, which is the size of France.
But the U.N. Security Council is not ready to agree to an African Union request to endorse military intervention in Mali, council diplomats have told Reuters.
Ag Ghali said Ansar Dine envoys were in Burkina Faso, which was appointed as a mediator in the Mali crisis by regional bloc ECOWAS, to defend their position.
"Anyway, nothing will be the same as before. Anyone who does not lead the fight under our flag is our enemy and will be fought. Secularism is disbelief. Whoever is for a secular state is our enemy and will fought by all means," he said.
(Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)