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Ali Abra Haman sprawled on the sand under the midnight sky, his left leg shattered by the gunshots that killed his parents and two sisters as they huddled in a final, frightened embrace.

Haman, 24, and his family had fled across the Mali desert toward Mauritania. While they camped, four trucks of soldiers drove up, emptied their rifles and drove off."Blood was everywhere," he said.

Haman is among tens of thousands of white nomads - some bringing their slaves - fleeing a black army in Mali. The army is accused of attacking civilians as it seeks to crush a violent white rebellion.

More than 70,000 of these desert nomads have sought sanctuary in white-ruled Mauritania, which has been accused of practicing a vicious form of apartheid and ethnic cleansing against its own black majority.

Two countries, two conflicts - both part of a wave of racially charged confrontations sweeping across Africa, from a white uprising in Niger and white expulsions in Senegal to civil war in the Sudan.

The battle front in this race war runs along an imaginary line in the sand that separates the Sahara Desert from the stretch of semi-arid scrubland, savanna and steppes to the south known as the Sahel.

This sun-scorched swath is the cultural frontier of the continent, the point of impact between Arab and African, Muslim and Christian and - even today - slave and slave owner.

Though often framed in terms of skin color, culture or language, at their roots these disputes are a battle that pits cattle and camel herders hunting for grazing lands against farmers trying to protect a shrinking strip of arable soil just below the Sahara.

The vast desert is creeping southward, pushing the white herders and their culture further into contact and conflict with black Africa. Scattered and seemingly unrelated raids and rebellions are driven by two decades of drought and the Sahara's slow but inexorable drift toward the equator.

"To me, it's an economic and ecological problem transformed by the political leaders into a racial problem. It's the demogogic ma-nipu-la-tion of ethnicity," said Sheik Ould Weddoud, an anthropologist and philosophy professor at the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania.

"It's a regional conflict with the potential to spread across the continent."

The conflict is growing in Mali, where the army is responding brutally to a resurgence of guerrilla attacks by the desert people known as the Tuaregs, fierce and ancient wanderers swathed in indigo scarves who drive their camels across the searing sands of six nations.

The Tuaregs are descendants of the Berbers, native Caucasians who ruled northern Africa when centuries were counted in single digits, before black empires and then Arabs conquered the territory. From the mingling of the Arabs and the Berbers came the Moors, the nomads who rule Mauritania.

The Tuaregs, financed by Libya, rebelled in Mali and neighboring Niger in 1990, demanding greater autonomy and land and language rights and killing hundreds of government soldiers.

The fighting eased after a peace accord was signed in May 1992, but exploded again last May.

Since then, the number of refugees in Mauritania - most living in three camps run by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees - has jumped from 58,000 to 70,000. More than 100 new refugees arrive daily.

Much of the violence in Mali occurs within a 100-mile radius of Timbuktu, the famous oasis on the medieval camel route that first linked Arabia and black Africa.

Now Timbuktu is the heart of Mali's conflict. Relief workers say they are seeing not only an exodus of Tuaregs, but also of Malian Moors not involved in the fighting - an indication the violence is becoming increasingly racial.

"It's a race war. They are killing anybody who is white," said Moulay Tijani, a Moor who said he fled Timbuktu last month and journeyed 120 miles to a U.N. camp in Mauritania. "I looked in an apartment near mine and saw soldiers cut the throats of a white family tied to their chairs."

Tijani, a Koranic scholar, said he left behind six of his seven black servants, one of his two wives and several children. He has heard from other refugees that his family has been killed, "but I can't be sure."

In addition to the Tuareg refugees in southeastern Mauritania, there are another 50,000 in Algeria and 25,000 in Burkina Faso.

Kamel Deriche, a U.N. representative in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, said as many as 500,000 more Tuaregs could be waiting out the rainy season in the Saharan dunes of northern Mali, beyond reach of the government army.

"When the rainy season ends in September, they could be forced to come to Mauritania," he said.

Two months ago, Abdallah Hama was an administrator in Mali's Foreign Ministry. Now he is a refugee.

He said he was forced to flee because of growing hostility on the streets of the once-stable capital, Bamako.

"It's not our fault we are not black," he said.

"Do you know what it was like for blacks in South Africa? It's like that for whites in northern Mali. No schools, development, land. If we speak Arabic, they say `Why are you speaking Arabic, rebel?' "

Hametou Musa, 36, fled Lere, a village in northwest Mali, because he was afraid of the army. Even though he is black, the fact that he speaks and dresses like the Arabs makes him a target, he said.

Dah Abdel Jelil, the Moorish governor of the Mauritanian region in which the three refugee camps are located, said his country is harboring Tuaregs and Moors "because the (Mali) government will kill them if we don't."

"The Mali government is posing this as an ethnic problem," he said. "They are not capable of having other people live with them like we are."

Many black Mauritanians would disagree, particularly the 60,000 driven from their homes by the army in 1989, or the families of the 500 black soldiers tortured and killed during purges in 1990.

Coura Drallo, a 30-year-old resident of Nouakchott, said her husband, a marine sergeant, was among the victims. Soldiers tied each of his legs to a car, then drove in opposite directions, ripping him in half, she said.

"I never want to see the Moors again," she said. "If I was able, I'd kill all of them."