The semi-nomadic Tuareg people have lived in the region since the 12th century.
The majority currently live in Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso.
France relies on the uranium mined in the Tuareg regions of Niger to fuel the nuclear plants that generate 78 percent of its electricity.
Since 1916 there have been at least five Tuareg uprisings. An uprising from 2007 to 2009 ended in defeat for the rebels.
Many retreated to Libya where significant numbers joined Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s army.
Since his overthrow most have returned to Mali.
Founded in October 2010, the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) says it includes “fighters who have returned from Libya… volunteers from the various ethnicities of northern Mali (Tuareg, Songhai, Peul and Moor) and both soldiers and officers who have deserted from the Malian army.”
Early in 2012 following a coup in Bamako, MNLA fighters seized towns across northern Mali.
As the offensive spread, the rebels seized military bases and forced the Malian army to retreat.
By the end of April they had declared an independent state of Azawad.
They quickly lost their gains to three large groups of Islamic rebels and widespread fighting broke out between the Islamists and Malian army troops.
Ethnic violence against Tuaregs has escalated since the French operation began.
Amnesty International released a report last week cataloguing the disappearance and harassment of Tuareg people.
In one incident Mustafa Mohammad, dressed in a traditional Tuareg style was walking past a military camp when soldiers grabbed him. He hasn’t been seen since.
Thousands of Tuareg people have fled for fear of reprisals. In Timbuktu Tuareg shops have been looted.