Analysts say despite the government's efforts to secure the north through its clampdown of a militia accused of masterminding recent Tuareg killings, lasting peace is still elusive because of restive ex-fighters, extreme Sahelian poverty, and drug trafficking.
Mali officials have reported arresting dozens of suspects in the Ganda Izo militia, or "children of the earth," including its leader Amadou Diallo who had fled to neighbouring Niger after four ethnic Tuareg civilians were abducted and killed during a Muslim holiday fair in Gao, Mali on 1 September.
Rather than feeling appeased by the government crackdown, Tuareg human rights lobbyist Raichatou Wallet Altanata says even good intentions may provoke a violent backlash, "I fear the government's hunt and mass arrests of militia members may have the opposite effect on their [militia] movement."
She fears the militia may strike back with revenge killings against the Tuareg community in the north.
Altanata says Ganda Izo, a militia made up primarily of ethnic Peuhls and Songhais brings up bloody memories for her of the group's paramilitary predecessor in the 1990's, Ganda Koy, which was accused of having the government's backing in its mass executions of Tuareg civilians in 1993 and 1994.
Both the governments of Mali and neighbouring Niger have been accused of violent crackdowns during Tuareg revolts that sent thousands of Tuaregs fleeing into Libya, Algeria and beyond, starting in 1996.
Bloody past, bright future?
Various Tuareg rebel factions have periodically taken up arms over the past nearly two decades in both Niger and Mali against their governments, demanding more services in the drought-prone north, and autonomy for the northeast region's Tuareg nomadic communities.
Peace accords starting in the early 1990's between governments and Tuareg rebel groups led to years of relative calm until the resurgence of violence in Mali in May 2006, and Niger in February 2007.
Niger's government has refused to negotiate with rebels this time around. Mali's government and Tuareg rebels, meanwhile, suspended Algeria-mediated peace talks 31 August 2008, though these are expected to continue after the Muslim month of religious fasting ends in the coming days.
But anthropologist Naffet Keita with the University of Bamako, who has published on Tuareg revolts, says conditions that permitted state-sponsored ethnic-based violence in response to past Tuareg rebellions have changed. "The people who brutally murdered four Tuaregs on 1 September were mistaken to think they would be protected by the state as they have been in the past. It is not the same era," said Keita.
But despite Keita's assessment of a more just Malian military, he and other analysts say there are still stumbling blocks to lasting regional security.
Previous efforts to integrate former fighters into Mali's national army were flawed, says Faradji Ag Bouteya, an army officer in Mali's Territorial Administration, "Rebels who joined the army never really left behind their movements."
He says after the 1996 peace accord, designed to end years of Tuareg revolt in northern Mali, about 12,000 former Tuareg rebels were integrated into the army, paramilitary and public posts, some of whom then deserted, says Bouteya.
"They were not used to military discipline, wanted things the easy way, [but] they wanted to get the state's attention, so they took the short-cut of taking up arms again."
Anthropologist Keita says the military was insufficiently trained or prepared to absorb the new waves of fighters, some of whom were given positions of leadership, "These are officers who never had people over them. This [can be] dangerous for everybody. If there is another wave of integration, we risk falling into the same trap [of heightened tension between Tuareg ex-rebels and the military]."
Droughts starting in the 1970's wiped out pastoralists' livestock, shrunk cultivation land and pushed rural communities, including nomads living on the edge of the Saharan desert, deeper into poverty.
Mali consistently ranks close to the bottom of an annual UN ranking of living conditions around the world, measured by life expectancy, education and income.
But Mahomed Ag Mahmoud, the director of the state's Agency for the Development of the North, says the government is trying, and has since 2006 invested US$3.6 million in infrastructure, water sources and microfinance in the north. "In addition, it has been forecasted that over the next 10 years, the government will invest an additional US$1.5 billion in the north."
But Altanata, who works with the Association for the Promotion of Peace, Development and Human Rights, says this figure is dubious, "Development efforts undertaken and pledged by the state remain just that, hypothetical pledges. If you visit the north, it does not look like millions have been pumped in."
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has recorded more drug seizures and trafficking through the Sahara desert in recent years. Investigators trace the drugs from various West African ports, through the desert, and onward to lucrative European cocaine and heroin markets.
Tuareg rebels have denied having powerful positions in the trafficking chain, but have admitted to IRIN, under the cover of anonymity, of being hired as lookouts or, occasionally, as drivers.
One Tuareg rebel who has fought in both Mali and Niger rebellions told IRIN, "People think we know more about the drug trade than we really do. We would love to be more involved. Our youths have no jobs. At least it would bring us some money. But the Arabs are protective of their trafficking and won't let us in too close. At most, they might hire us to pose as herders to look out for security forces- you know, the old men with no animals standing in the middle of the desert."
The head of Mali's Commission of Peace and Reconciliation, Mahamadou Diagouraga, told IRIN even in the best of circumstances, drug trafficking threatens the north's security, "Drug trafficking and the spread of Algeria's Islamism into our country turns the north into a fertile breeding ground. Even if we had total control of this space, I don't think, even then, the peace that we so long for would come any time soon."