BAMAKO, April 4 (Reuters) - Tuareg separatists proclaimed independence for what they call the state of Azawad in northern Mali on Friday after an advance that caught the new military junta off guard.
Below are some facts about the area and the groups fighting there:
* After capturing the region's key towns, the rebels control an area larger than France, Mali's former colonial power. Much of the land is the Sahara desert at its most inhospitable: rock, sand dunes and dust scored by shifting tracks.
* The African Union and France have rejected the declaration of independence. Mali's neighbours fear the precedent of allowing such a secession as well as the danger of a widening area of instability.
* Alongside the secular separatists are other gunmen including Islamists seeking sharia across Mali, al Qaeda fighters and some with criminal links.
* Thirteen Western hostages, six of them French, are believed to be held in the zone. Border towns like Tin Zaouatine, which are used as hubs for cocaine and hashish smuggling across the Sahara, are now in rebel hands.
* The MNLA, or National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, is the fourth in a series of rebellions by the nomadic Tuareg in Mali since independence over 50 years ago. Estimates of numbers for the force vary from anything between 1,000 to 3,000 men.
* Most prominent amongst Islamist groups in the rebel push is Ansar Dine, which wants sharia law across Mali. It is led by Iyad Ag Ghali, a leader during past Tuareg rebellions who was sent to Saudi Arabia as a Malian diplomat under a peace deal.
* Mali says Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb cells have been active on the rebel side, a charge denied by the MNLA. But Ag Ghali has ties with senior members of AQIM and residents of Timbuktu report seeing members of the group.
* The rebel stronghold of Timbuktu, a byword for remoteness, is an ancient trading post on Saharan caravan routes that once saw salt from the north exchanged for gold and slaves from black Africa. Insecurity has put paid to the tourist industry.
* The territory claimed as Azawad roughly corresponds to the three northern regions of Mali. The term is thought to have linguistic links to the dried up Azawagh tributary of the giant Niger river.
* The world renowned musical group Tinariwen are from the oasis town of Tessalit in the far north of the region.