Mali's Tuareg rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine Islamist militants have agreed to merge and create an independent Islamic state in the north of the country, a rebel spokesman said on Saturday.
The deal between MNLA, which has said it wants an independent secular state in the north, and the al Qaeda-linked Salafist Ansar Dine, which had wanted to impose Sharia across Mali, may complicate international efforts to stabilise the landlocked west African nation after a March coup that plunged the country into chaos.
"The agreement reached this evening will see the merging of the two movements - the MNLA and Ansar Dine - to create an independent Islamic state," MNLA spokesman Mohamed Ag Attaher told Reuters by phone from Gao, in the north of Mali where the deal was signed.
"It will also see the merging of our two forces and the appointment of an executive authority for the Azawad state," Attaher said, referring to the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
Celebratory gunfire was heard across the city of Gao and Timbuktu after news of the agreement, residents said.
The MNLA separatists, backed by Ansar Dine and other armed groups, taking advantage of a March 22 coup in Bamako, swept through Azawad in April, seizing an area bigger than France.
In the capital Bamako, efforts by regional neighbours to reinstate a civilian government and tackle the rebel occupation, have met with repeated setbacks as the junta seeks to continue to play a role in government.