At a glance
What began as a northern Tuareg rebel uprising was soon hijacked by better-armed and wealthier Islamist groups who for 10 months controlled northern Mali.
In January 2013, a year after the original uprising began, the French air force started pounding the Islamists after they tried to advance south towards the capital Bamako. French and Malian troops then pushed north, breaking the grip of the Islamist militants.
Tuareg rebel fighters captured the northern town of Kidal after French troops ousted the Islamists in January. They agreed to hand it over under a peace deal they signed with the government in June.
Although the scale of the fighting has fallen significantly in 2013, the region still experiences sporadic clashes between armed groups and suicide attacks.
A U.N.-authorised force of West African troops – with Western logistical, financial and intelligence backing – was deployed to help the Malian and French armies track down the Islamist fighters. The 6,000-strong force, called the African-Led International Support Mission (AFISMA), was transferred in July 2013 to a newly formed U.N. force, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
The deployment of the 12,600-strong U.N. force is hobbled by a lack of aircraft and troop commitments from member states.
France had more than 4,000 troops at the height of the conflict, but aims to have just 1,000 soldiers deployed in Mali by end-2013 as a rapid reaction force to respond to any terrorist threat.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting, in a region recovering from a food crisis that pushed 18.7 million people into hunger in 2012. In northern Mali, many schools and other essential services closed, and the local economy was badly hit.
France pressed hard for a presidential poll to be held in July, eager to see an elected government in place to negotiate with the Tuareg rebels and rebuild the country.
Tuareg rebel groups in northern Mali have long complained of being neglected and marginalised by the government ruling far away in the south. They have staged several uprisings since the start of the 1990s, despite signing peace deals in 1995 and 2006.
The most recent uprising began in January 2012, led by the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – Azawad being the name the Tuareg use to refer to Mali’s northern region – and helped by an influx of arms from the Libyan civil war.
In March, low-ranking soldiers – angry that the government had failed to stamp out the rebellion in the north – ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure in a coup in the capital Bamako.
The coup shocked many who had viewed Mali as a model of peace and democracy after it ended 23 years of military dictatorship in 1992.
In the political turmoil that followed the army takeover, the northern rebels seized control of the north, splitting the country in two. An interim government in the south was appointed three weeks after the coup.
The Tuareg MNLA was pushed aside by Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine (which means "Defenders of the Faith"), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), and the North African al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Until January 2013, they occupied the three northern regions - Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The local Islamist group Ansar Dine is led by Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg chief sidelined during the discussions that led to the creation of the MNLA. By taking control of the north, Ansar Dine established links with former regime-backed Arab and Tuareg militias as well as AQIM, according to think tank International Crisis Group.
West African mediators offered peace talks to Ansar Dine, while excluding foreigners, extremists and the criminal networks smuggling drugs and contraband that had joined the fray. Ansar Dine agreed a ceasefire with the government in December 2012 but suspended it in January 2013, accusing Bamako of making a mockery of peace talks by gearing up for war.
The Islamist groups suffered heavy casualties in clashes with the Malian and French troops and the African-led mission AFISMA. They fragmented and fighters melted into the local population, fled to neighbouring countries, or formed new groups.
When French troops ousted the Islamists from the north, the MNLA moved in and retook control of Kidal town, their traditional fiefdom. Although they supported the French intervention, they opposed the return of the Malian army to the north before a political agreement.
The Islamist groups imposed sharia – Islamic law – in territories under their control. They carried out public whippings of people accused of adultery, punished others with amputations, arrested men for smoking, forced women to veil their faces, and banned music from local radio stations.
They also destroyed many UNESCO-listed shrines of local saints in Timbuktu, saying such worship was un-Islamic. Timbuktu was a thriving university city in the 15th century and is home to hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts dating back to the 13th century. Many say it has a crucial role in the rewriting of Africa's history from an African perspective.
Both Islamist groups in northern Mali and self-defence militias in government-controlled areas used child soldiers, and there were reports of government soldiers carrying out extrajudicial executions, Amnesty International said.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an inquiry in January 2013 into alleged atrocities committed in the north, including executions, rape and the use of child soldiers.
The conflict increased concerns that northern Mali had become a haven for terrorists already active in the region. In the mid-2000s, the United States had established its Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership to train national armies in the region – including that of Mali – in counter-terrorism operations. In April 2010, Mali, Algeria, Mauritania and Niger set up a joint military command to tackle the threat of terrorism. In January 2013, Niger agreed to allow U.S. surveillance drones to be stationed on its territory to improve intelligence on the Islamist fighters.
By July 2013, nearly 530,000 people had been forced to flee their homes in both north and south Mali. More than 350,000 were displaced within Mali, and about 175,000 had fled across the border, mostly to Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, according to U.N. figures.
The numbers had dropped slightly in October 2013, to 283,000 internally displaced and 169,000 refugees.
The displacement added pressure to host communities in Mali and its neighbours, which were still recovering from the major food crisis that swept across West Africa's Sahel region in 2012. Although good rains have since produced better harvests, millions of people are still in dire need, though down from a peak of 18.7 million in 2012.
In northern Mali, 1.3 million people need food aid.
Aid agencies’ access in much of the north has improved, but in rural areas and the Kidal region insecurity is still hampering operations.
Although some children recruited into armed groups have now returned home, others are still being used by groups including self-defence militias, according to the U.N. secretary-general’s October report.
UNICEF said children in the north have been killed or injured by explosive devices, recruited into armed groups, and sexually abused.
Many schools across the region were closed, occupied by armed groups or damaged by the conflict. Children out of school were at a higher risk of recruitment, violence and exploitation, UNICEF said.
About half the schools remain closed.
Access to healthcare is extremely limited because medical staff are reluctant to return.
Aid is also needed in the south where people are experiencing food shortages, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, with half the population living below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day.
WHO ARE THE MAIN ARMED GROUPS?
AQIM has its roots in the Algerian civil war of the early 1990s, but has since adopted an international Islamist agenda. It emerged in January 2007 from the Algerian movement called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), and rose to prominence partly by attacking Algerian government forces but mainly through its involvement in kidnapping Westerners across the Sahel zone countries including Mali, Niger and Mauritania. It raises tens of millions of dollars from ransoms and links to trans-Saharan smuggling of drugs, guns and people. Its leaders are Algerian, but most of its fighters are foreign. U.S. officials have warned of links between AQIM, Nigeria's Boko Haram and al Shabaab Islamic militants fighting in Somalia.
MUJWA is an AQIM splinter group that formed in late 2011. The faction retains links to AQIM but has focused on building a broader base than AQIM, whose leadership is dominated by Algerians. MUJWA has drawn recruits from a range of ethnic groups in Mali and elsewhere in the region. It has also been behind hostage taking in the region.
Another offshoot of AQIM – Signed-in-Blood Battalion – is made up of foreign fighters committed to global jihad.
Ansar Dine is the only local group, and some experts say the group acted as host to foreign al Qaeda fighters, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. Its founder, Iyad Ag Ghali, led Tuareg uprisings against the Malian government, helped negotiate the release of hostages kidnapped by al Qaeda, and worked as a Malian diplomat in Saudi Arabia.
The MNLA is secular and seeks independence for the northern region. Many in the group fought alongside former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s troops in Libya. It is blamed by many in southern Mali for opening the door to the Islamists, and its leaders face arrest warrants for alleged crimes committed during their occupation of the north.