What began as a northern Tuareg rebel uprising was soon hijacked by better-armed and wealthier Islamist groups who for 10 months controlled Mali's north.
In January 2013, a year after the original uprising began, France began 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 who vanished from the region's towns and villages, leaving behind fears of a lingering guerrilla war.
A U.N.-authorised force of West African troops, with Western logistical, financial and intelligence backing, is being deployed to help Mali's army track down the Islamist fighters. The force, called the African-Led International Support Mission (AFISMA), is expected to exceed 8,000 troops.
Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by the fighting, which has been taking place in a region recovering from a food crisis that pushed 18.7 million people into hunger in 2012.
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) and helped by an influx of arms from the Libyan civil war.
In March, low-ranking soldiers ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure in a coup in the capital Bamako, angry that the government had failed to stamp out the rebellion in the north.
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 became sidelined 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.
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, the local Islamist group, while excluding foreigners, extremists and the criminal networks smuggling drugs and contraband that have 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.
Hundreds of thousands of residents have fled the violence since January 2012, and those still living in the north suffer power, fuel and food shortages. Many schools and other essential services were closed and the local economy has been badly hit.
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. In the 15th century Timbuktu was a thriving university city and it is home to hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts dating back to the 13th century. Many say it has a crucial role in the re-writing of Africa's history from an African perspective.
Both Islamist groups in northern Mali and self-defence militias in government-controlled areas use child soldiers, and there have been 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. Already in the mid-2000s, the United States 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. And in January 2013, Niger agreed to allow U.S. surveillance drones to be stationed on its territory to improve intelligence on the Islamist fighters.
WHO ARE THE ARMED ISLAMIST 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 including Mali, Niger and Mauritania. It raises tens of millions of dollars in ransoms, and from its 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 broadening its base from the domination of AQIM's Algerian leadership. It has drawn recruits from a range of ethnic groups in Mali and elsewhere in the region. MUJWA has also been behind hostage taking in the region.
Ansar Dine is the only local group, and some experts say the group is acting 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.
In January 2013, just before the French ground troops began their operation, some members of Ansar Dine announced they were part of a new faction – the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) – that wanted talks and rejected the group's alliance with AQIM.
Although the Islamists' control of the north raised fears of worsening terrorism, some experts said Western countries should not focus on them to the exclusion of Mali's other armed groups, the long-term needs and demands of the population in the north, and the political crisis in the south.
Nearly 375,000 people had been forced to flee their homes by mid-January 2013, from both north and south Mali. Nearly 230,000 were displaced within Mali, and about 145,000 had fled across the border, mostly to Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, according to U.N. figures.
The displacement added pressure to host communities in Mali and its neighbours that are still recovering from a major food crisis that swept across West Africa's Sahel region in 2012. Although good rains have produced better harvests, the number of people in dire need is 10.3 million, down from 18.7 million in 2012.
In Mali, 2 million people need food aid – 1 million in the north and about 300,000 in the south – according to U.N. figures. About 747,000 in the north and south need emergency food aid. ;
UNICEF said children in the north have been killed or injured by explosive devices, recruited into armed groups, and have been 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.
The majority of humanitarian needs are in the north, but aid is also needed in the south where health services and schools have been stretched by the sudden influx of northerners, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, where half the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day.