As Canada prepares to send a cargo plane to assist the French offensive in the west African country of Mali, we take a look at some of the issues and main players involved in a regional conflict that threatens to have global implications.


Who is fighting?

Several rebel groups in the north of the country are waging an insurgency against the Malian government, based in the capital, Bamoko, in the south. As of Jan. 11, several foreign countries are also officially involved. France has supplied fighter jets and a few hundred troops, and Britain and Canada have both said they are sending cargo planes to support the French operation.


Who are the rebels?

The rebels are far from a united group and are made up of secular nationalists and radical Islamists from within Mali's ethnic Tuareg population and Islamic fundamentalists from neighbouring countries with their own agendas.


The main rebel groups are:


National Liberation Movement of Azawad (known by its French acronym MNLA): Made up of ethnic Tuaregs, a nomadic people who have been seeking autonomy for a large northern swathe of Mali they call Azawad, which technically also takes in parts of Algeria and Niger although MNLA has said it would respect the territorial integrity of other countries.


Although Muslims like the majority of the Malian population, who are moderate Sufis, members of MNLA are generally secularist and do not subscribe to the more radical form of Islam that the rival rebel group Ansar Dine promotes, known as Wahabism or Salafism. Nevertheless, they entered into an alliance of convenience with Ansar Dine following the March 2012 military coup that deposed Mali's president. The alliance soon fell apart, and the better armed and funded Ansar Dine was able to set about imposing harsh Sharia law in rebel-held territories.

Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith): A militant group of Tuaregs who subscribe to the more radical form of Islam known as Wahabism or Salafism and want to impose Sharia law in the north. The group is headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, a charismatic figure who once served as a diplomat, representing Mali in Saudi Arabia, and negotiated on behalf of the Tuaregs with the central government and international representatives, including the U.S. ambassador in Mali.


Since seizing control in the north last spring, Ansar Dine and its allies have instituted harsh punishments on anyone found to be violating Sharia law, including stoning to death and amputation of limbs. The group's members have also destroyed Sufi shrines, Christian monuments and other cultural and historic sites they found offended their strict interpretation of Islam — including in the historic city of Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site now controlled by rebels.


Although it has made comments denouncing the group and its terrorist actions, Ansar Dine is thought to be allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda's North African wing that operates in several countries in the Sahel-Sahara region of northern Africa and traces its origins to militant Islamist groups in Algeria. Ag Ghali has acted as a negotiator in hostage takings carried out by AQIM in the past — and reportedly profited handsomely from them.


Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA or MUJAO — after the French acronym): a small jihadist group thought to be an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that operates mainly in northern Mali and Algeria. It has allied itself with Ansar Dine, whose Wahabist interpretation of Islam it shares.


The presence of other militant Islamist groups, such as Nigeria's Boko Haram, have also been reported in Mali since the fighting began.


Who are the Tuareg?

Nomadic pastoralists related to the Berbers of the Sahara who make up a unique ethnic group different from the sub-Saharan ethnic communities of southern Mali. The Tuareg live in a western stretch of the Sahel-Sahara region that encompasses several countries, including Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso.


Hostilities between the Tuareg and Mali's central government, based in the southern city of Bamako, have existed for generations, with the Tuareg feeling like their needs and rights have been ignored and their people discriminated against.


There have been several Tuareg uprisings against the central government and attempts to negotiate greater autonomy for the Tuaregs since independence from the French colonial government in 1960, but the separatist movement was given new life — and new weapons and funds — after the end of the Libyan conflict in October 2011, when a number of Tuareg returned to Mali after fighting in Moammar Gadhafi's army.


How did the current conflict start?

The most immediate origin of the current crisis was the March 2012 military coup that deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré ahead of the planned April 2012 presidential elections. Officers of the military, led by the U.S.-trained Capt. Amadou Sanogo, rose up against Touré over his inability to contain the rebels who had been escalating their fight for autonomy in the north of the country.

Touré fled to Senegal and was replaced with an interim civilian administration headed by Dioncounda Traoré, although the military continued to wield control over the country.


The rebels used the coup as an opportunity to make a push for control in the north and on April 6 declared independence for the "state of the Azawad," which encompasses about two-thirds of the country, an area slightly bigger than France. Since then, they have been pushing farther and farther south and as of Jan. 14 were about 400 kilometres from the capital, Bamako.


The rebel's cause has been helped by the instability of the central government and defections within the military.


The country's interim prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, was arrested by soldiers loyal to Sanogo and forced to resign in December after reportedly trying to flee the country. He was replaced by Django Cissoko, a former official in the office of the president.


Even before that development, the International Crisis Group warned that neither the prime minister nor the president nor the ex-junta leader Sanogo "has sufficient popular legitimacy or the ability to prevent the aggravation of the crisis."


How are the rebels funded and armed?

The kidnapping of Westerners has long been a lucrative revenue-generating activity for Islamist groups operating in the Sahel region, which, geographically speaking, is a transitional region that stretches across northern Africa, dividing the Sahara desert to the north from the tropical savanna to the south but that has become known as a lawless area where militants operate with impunity, trafficking in drugs, weapons and people.


Some of the millions of dollars raised from ransoms and drug trafficking are now helping to fund the Malian insurgency.


The rebel groups are using some of this money to buy weapons and military equipment on the black market, from dealers in countries like Chad and Russia, but some of their weapons have also been brought back from Libya by Tuaregs who fought alongside Moammar Gadhafi's forces.


The rebels also managed to acquire weapons and military equipment left behind by retreating Malian forces.


What has been the international reaction to the conflict?

After the March 2012 military coup, Western and African countries, including Canada, instituted sanctions against Mali, but these were soon lifted after the junta turned over control — at least nominally —to a civilian government.


In December, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorizing a military intervention in Mali led by about 3,300 troops from several members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), including Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Senegal. Originally, mobilization of these troops was not expected until fall 2013, but the unabated advancement of the rebels and France's recent intervention in the conflict have moved up that timeline. ECOWAS leaders have now vowed to deploy at least some of the forces as soon as the end of this week.


France, which has 6,000 citizens in Mali, seven of whom are being held hostage by Islamist militants, has been the first country to provide military support to the Malian forces. It launched a series of air strikes against rebel positions on Jan. 11 and has kept up the bombardment in an effort to allow the Malian military to push back the rebels. It also has about 550 troops in the capital and the southern town of Mopti, the site of a major military base.


The air strikes have had mixed success, with rebels initially overpowering Malian forces in the strategic town of Konna, despite French air support, and seizing the strategically important town of Diabaly, which has a military base and lies south of what until then had been the dividing line between rebel and government territory.


The Malian forces eventually regained Konna but not before rebels shot down a French fighter jet, killing the pilot.

France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the length of the French operation was "a question of weeks," and her country's president has stressed that it was only intended to lay the groundwork for the eventual deployment of an African force that would, "allow Mali to recover its territorial integrity."


But analysts have warned that Western nations could become embroiled in a much-longer, more complicated conflict in the way that they have in Afghanistan and Iraq and that their intervention could be read as yet another attack on Muslims.


Britain and Canada have already offered logistical support to the French operation, each sending cargo planes to Mali, but vowed they would not send combat troops to the country, and the U.S. has said it might also offer limited logistical support.


Any foreign intervention is motivated mainly by a fear that allowing the rebels to gain greater control in Mali would consolidate the foothold that al-Qaeda and other Islamists already have in northern Africa and give them freer rein to launch terrorist strikes against other nations. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned that allowing Mali to fall to the rebels could result in "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe."


What is Canada's role?

Canada has committed to providing logistical support to French forces in Mali. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Jan. 14 that in response to a request for assistance from France, Canada will send one Royal Canadian Air Force C-17 cargo plane to Mali, which will remain in operation there for for about one week, helping to transport equipment and supplies to the Malian capital, Bamako.


Canada has strong ties to Mali, which is one of the biggest recipients of Canadian foreign aid, having received more than $110 million in 2010-11. Canadian troops and special forces have helped train Mali's military.


When explaining Canada's decision to get involved in the conflict, Harper said in a statement:


"The establishment of a terrorist region in the middle of Africa is of grave concern to the broader international community, including Canada and our close allies."


How many people have been killed or displaced?

The UNHCR has said more than 350,000 people, out of a total population of 15 million, have been displaced by the conflict, some to neighbouring countries.


Just how many people have been killed in the fighting so far is unclear. A Malian officer reported that more than 100 rebel fighters were killed in the air strikes on Konna. One French pilot was also killed in the operation, and human rights groups reported that between six and 10 civilians, including some children, died in the battle over Konna.


Abuses have been reported on both sides of the fighting. Amnesty International has reported that the Islamist groups in the north have used child soldiers and employed flogging, amputations and stoning to death against "those who oppose their interpretation of Islam."


Government forces have, in turn, been accused of carrying out extrajudicial executions and "arresting, torturing and killing Tuareg people apparently only on ethnic grounds," Amnesty International reported in December.


Could the conflict spread beyond Mali?

The conflict has already sucked in neighbouring countries like Algeria and Niger, which are struggling to contain their own Islamist insurgents, who have now allied themselves with the Mali rebels, and other African nations like Senegal and Nigeria, which have committed troops to the UN-sanctioned African-Led International Support Mission.


But it also threatens to have much broader consequences that extend not just beyond the borders of the region but beyond Africa.


Oumar Ould Hamaha, a Malian rebel commander affiliated with several of the Islamist groups in the Sahel region and notorious for his role in the kidnappings of Westerners, including that of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, warned on French radio that by intervening in the Mali conflict, France has "opened the gates of hell for all the French" and "has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia. And that is only the beginning."


Rebel leaders have also warned that the intervention will have consequences for the seven French citizens who are still being held hostage by AQIM.


France raised its domestic terror threat level after deploying its forces to Mali and said it would increase security on its transportation systems and at some public buildings. It advised the 6,000 French citizens who remained in the country at the start of its operation to leave Mali.