MENAKA, Mali - As Tuareg rebels said they were not ready to sign a planned peace deal with the government on Wednesday, after several years of violence, towns like this in desperately poor north Mali hold clues to what greater autonomy in this region would be like.
Two years ago, an offensive by French and Malian forces pushed insurgents, including secular nationalists and al Qaeda-linked Islamists, out of key strongholds in north Mali - but not out of this bustling collection of mud houses and concrete villas.
A separatist Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), is the de facto government in this city of 40,000, U.N. officials say.
"We coordinate with the MNLA for security and inform them when we go on missions," said Hadrami Ould Ely, the manager of ACTED, a non-governmental organisation that provides food and job services for local people with U.N. funds. "They have some public support."
The government announced on Thursday that Tuareg rebels planned to back a U.N.-brokered peace deal, but leaders of the rebel Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) said on Friday they could not sign the accord in its current form on Wednesday.
Local residents have little interest in the negotiations, which are taking place in Algeria. In this struggling region of one of the world's poorest countries, they are preoccupied with basic needs rather than political intrigue.
"We don't know who is who in this conflict," said Menaka resident Salim Tjegoum. "The biggest problems here are water and food."
While towns like Menaka seem relatively calm under MNLA control, many people in southern Mali - where the government is based - don't trust the rebels and believe the negotiations in which they are seeking greater autonomy are a smokescreen for plans to win full independence.
"If we give the north to the rebels, it will be a mess," predicted Sissoko Amadou, a student in the capital, Bamako. "If you give the area to the MNLA, it will become a stronghold for jihadists. The (MNLA) authorities don't have control over what's happening there."
French, UN Forces Repel Rebels
French forces succeeded in routing the MNLA and their al Qaeda-linked rivals from several northern Mali cities in 2013, including the key hub of Gao, following international fears that Islamists could try to seize the capital.
But there are parts of the country that the government and its international backers still do not control. Among the rebels, complex alliances shift quickly and deciphering the true motives of different groups wracked by internal fissures, ethnic politics, traditional criminality and foreign loyalties can be difficult.
"There was unjustified optimism after the (2013) French intervention in the north that the problem had been solved," Richard Gowan, a New York University professor who studies the conflict, said in a phone interview.
"There was an assumption that it would be a relatively straightforward mission (to maintain stability) as the French had dealt with the Islamists; there was a failure to understand the deep political problems the country faces."
U.N. troops provide basic security in Menaka and other parts of the north, but face attacks from rebels.
The Malian army is still in disarray following losses in the north in 2012, while outside forces are torn between traditional stabilization work and counter-terrorism missions, Gowan said.
Aid workers and the U.N. World Food Program, trying to feed more than 1.8 million Malians, are coordinating operations with the MNLA in the territory they control.
Relations between the NGOs and the MNLA are generally positive, World Food Program regional official Francis Alain Bere said after meeting residents of rebel-controlled Menaka. The MNLA do not demand taxes or food for themselves from aid groups, he said.
'Wait and See'
A perennial lack of infrastructure, persistent poverty and complaints of central government neglect have led Tuaregs to launch four uprisings since Mali won independence from France in 1960. A largely nomadic community, the Tuareg have been hit hard by worsening droughts linked to climate change and a lack of job opportunities in the north.
The latest rebellion exploded in 2012 when Tuareg fighters who served in Libya's army during the reign of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi returned to Mali after his ouster, trained and armed and with nothing much to lose.
In southern Mali, many worry that the MNLA might be used as pawns by international jihadi groups, who could launch broader attacks on Mali and beyond if foreign troops left or reduced their commitment after a peace deal.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaeda commander who masterminded a deadly hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in 2013, used northern Mali as an operations base before he was killed by Chadian forces that year. Attacks on or kidnappings of foreigners in the region are not uncommon.
The area has also become a transit point for drugs moving from West Africa to Europe, illegal weapons, and people smuggling, and some fear a deal giving it greater autonomy under the MNLA could exacerbate these lucrative illegal activities.
"The MNLA says they need to consult (their supporters) about the deal, but that's not true," Abdoulaye Traore, a retired Malian military colonel said in an interview at his home in Bamako. "Warlords are controlling whether they sign."
"It's a wait and see situation," he said.