Mali's prime minister said his country was at war with Tuareg separatists after a weekend of deadly clashes between rebels and the Malian army, and the abduction of dozens of civil servants in a northern city.
The fighting in the northern Malian city of Kidal broke out on Saturday outside the regional governor's offices as Mali's Prime Minister Moussa Mara was visiting the city as part of his first tour of the country's restive northern desert.
"Eight members of the armed forces were killed and 25 were wounded while 28 of the attackers were killed," the defence ministry said in a statement, adding that around 30 civil servants were being held hostage.
Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, was the scene of anti-government protests by several hundred youths and women on Friday and Saturday who demonstrated at the regional airport.
Clashes continued throughout the day with sporadic shooting eventually easing during the night.
"In light of this declaration of war, the Republic of Mali is henceforth at war," Mara told a Reuters reporter inside the base overnight.
"We are going to formulate the appropriate response to the situation," added the prime minister, who was visiting Kidal for the first time since his appointment last month to revive long-delayed talks with northern armed groups.
Kidal, an MNLA stronghold
A former French colony, Mali was thrown into turmoil following a March 2012 coup, when the MNLA, a Tuareg separatist group, announced the independence of northern Mali.
The MNLA declaration sparked an influx of jihadist groups, including al Qaeda-linked militants, with the various groups controlling different northern Malian cities and regions. Kidal has been a stronghold of the MNLA.
When French troops launched Operation Serval in January 2013 to seize the north from jihadist control, the MNLA declared it would surrender to French troops, but not the Malian army, their traditional foes. Their concerns were heeded and French troops entered the besieged town without Malian soldiers.
Following the re-establishment of civilian rule in 2013, the Malian government and a collection of armed groups, which broke with the Islamists ahead of the French offensive, signed an agreement promising to hold talks over autonomy.
The latest clashes, potentially the worst pitting the government against Tuareg rebels since the French intervention, now threaten to sink efforts to find a peaceful solution to the long cycle of Tuareg rebellions that have gripped this West African nation for decades.
Conflicting claims and narratives
On Sunday, an MNLA spokesman told Reuters that the army had attacked the group first, following pro-independence protests in the town.
"We've taken about 40 prisoners, including high-ranking military officers and civil servants," said Attaye Ag Mohamed.
However a Malian military source told Reuters that Saturday's gun battle erupted after MNLA fighters in two trucks attacked an army checkpoint in front of the Kidal governor's office
In a statement released later Sunday, the Malian Defence Ministry said “the Malian armed forces recorded eight dead and 25 wounded, while 28 dead and 62 wounded were counted on the side of the aggressors" following the weekend’s clashes.
The government put the figure of abducted civil servants at “around 30”.
The whereabouts of the captured civil servants, who were posted in the city by the authorities in Bamako, were not known.
Speaking to Reuters, MNLA spokesman Ag Mohamed said the captured civil servants were “all safe and sound and doing well."
Following the latest clashes, an MNLA spokesman on Sunday told Reuters that the rebel group had claimed control of Kidal. Prime Minister Mara had moved from Kidal to Gao, another city in northern Mali.
The MNLA’s claim has not been independently verified, with residents telling journalists that shots were heard on Sunday near the governor’s office.
Date created : 2014-05-18