Islamists declare north Mali an independent state governed by sharia
Mali moved a step closer to being broken in two on Sunday when al-Qaeda-linked Islamists and Tuareg rebels declared the nation's north an independent country to be ruled according to sharia law.
"We are all in favour of the independence of Azawad ... We all accept Islam as the religion," they said, adding that Islam would also be the main source of law.
In Gao, a major town in the north where leaders of the two movements have been holding talks, the sealing of the deal was greeted by the sound of guns being fired into the air.
The rebel army is made up largely of Tuaregs, Saharan tribespeople who have been battling for independence from southern Mali since the nation's independence from France in 1960.
Malian mercenaries returning from Libya after the death of Col Gaddafi strengthened the MNLA's leadership, swelled its infantry ranks and boosted its arsenal.
The rebels' lightning advance across Mali's north was launched as middle-ranking officers from the national army staged a coup in Bamako on March 22, creating chaos in the capital, far to the south.
Islamist fighters, grouped together as Ansar Dine, which has links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, then took the chance of the power vacuum also to seize territory.
The country's interim administration immediately rejected the independence declaration.