(Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, 20 March 2005/upyernoz)

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.