Malian troops launch assault on Tuareg rebel bastion
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Malian soldiers have launched a deadly assault on armed Tuareg rebels near their northern stronghold of Kidal, in the first clashes between the two since a French-led offensive to drive al Qaeda-linked groups from northern Mali.
Malian troops seized a village after heavy fighting with Tuareg separatists on Wednesday and are advancing towards the town of Kidal, the last rebel stronghold, the army said.
“Our troops have taken Anefis this morning after intense fighting,” army spokesman Colonel Souleymane Maiga said.
Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, Paris-based spokesman for rebel group MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), said in a statement that MNLA forces were fighting Malian soldiers in Anefis, but did not provide further details.
An army source quoted by AFP said that ten Tuareg rebels and two Malian soldiers were killed in the fighting.
Another army officer said rebel fighters had abandoned their vehicles and fled Anefis, heading towards Kidal.
A local aid worker in Kidal told Reuters by telephone that the town was deserted and MNLA fighters who had been patrolling the streets had disappeared following news of Anefis’s fall.
“We no longer see the MNLA people. Shops, businesses, the market, everything is closed today. We are all staying at home,” the resident said, requesting not to be named.
It was the first combat between the MNLA separatists and the Malian army since a French-led military offensive launched in January against Islamists in northern Mali.
The French campaign ended the 10-month domination of the desert region by al Qaeda-linked groups but left the Tuareg rebels in control of Kidal.
Malian Foreign Affairs Minister Tièman Hubert Coulibaly said that leaving part of the country in rebel hands was “nonsense” in an interview with FRANCE 24 on Wednesday.
His government has accused MNLA guards of ethnic cleansing in the region.
“The government must protect the citizens of Kidal – just a few days ago nearly 200 people were arrested by the MNLA just because they are black,” he said.
The sudden drive to reclaim the rebels’ last bastion comes as the government prepares for national elections, hoped to be held next month.
“We need to enable peace to be settled in Kidal so that we can have peaceful and fair elections by the end of July,” Coulibaly said.
The MNLA has rejected Bamako’s calls for it to lay down its weapons, saying it would resist any attempt to retake Kidal. It has said it is open to negotiations with the government if northern Mali’s right to self-determination is recognised.
France said it supported the Malian government’s efforts to reestablish its presence in the whole of Mali.
“There can only be and should only be one army in Mali and it must be able to be deployed in every part of the country,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
“That is why we call on all armed groups to lay down their weapons and pursue peace talks with Malian authorities,” it said.
The MNLA was not targeted by the French offensive and has since been able to retake some areas, including Kidal. But this has strained relations between France and the transitional government in the southern capital, Bamako.
The MNLA rose up early last year, calling for the creation of a Tuareg homeland in northern Mali. It joined forces with al Qaeda-associated fighters and together they overran the north, but the better armed Islamists quickly took control of the rebellion.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
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