Kidal, a lawless outpost in Mali's desert north
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Kidal, the northern Malian town where two French journalists were abducted and murdered on Saturday, is a remote and volatile outpost where neither French nor UN troops, let alone Malian forces, are truly in control.
Located at the heart of Mali’s vast desert north, the town of Kidal, where Radio France Internationale (RFI) journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were abducted and murdered on Saturday, is the cradle of Mali’s Tuareg community and a bastion of the separatist MNLA movement.
For many people familiar with the area, Saturday's gruesome events were simply waiting to happen.
“This is not surprising. The town is not secure, anyone can get in and out and do anything – these kinds of things happen every day,” a resident of Kidal told FRANCE 24 on Sunday.
The source spoke on condition of anonymity because of widespread insecurity in the area.
“Apart from the helicopters and other aircraft constantly flying over the town all night and this morning, there has been no particular security activity here,” the source added.
While the Islamist groups that overran northern Mali last year were mostly chased out of Kidal and other towns by a French-led military intervention earlier this year, the remaining French forces and a newly deployed UN peacekeeping force, known as MINUSMA, have so far been unable to root out the last pockets of resistance.
"The truth is that in Kidal now there is no rule of law. Armed groups have not disarmed, despite a UN resolution requiring them to," said Abdoulaye Bathily, MINUSMA's second-in-command, in an interview with FRANCE 24 on Sunday.
The Senegalese former minister blamed the lack of resources for the failure to restore order to the lawless region. "We were supposed to have over 12,000 troops on the ground [throughout Mali], but so far we barely have half the amount," he said.
“No army patrols in Kidal”
Under the terms of a peace deal signed in June, Kidal has been placed under the joint supervision of Malian troops and the MNLA, although in practice the hapless Malian army has little control over the strategic town.
“Our troops do not have the capacity to be present on all roads leading in and out of Kidal at any given time,” Mali’s Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga told FRANCE 24 on Sunday. “The MINUSMA troops there largely stay in their barracks. And [French operation] Serval does not have enough men to secure the town,” he added.
Each of the three forces has 200 troops in Kidal, and the MNLA will not allow the presence of any additional Malian soldiers.
The low number of boots on the ground means the capacity to enforce order is severely constrained.
“The Malian army and MINUSMA do not patrol in Kidal, because the town has a de facto special status,” the minister said. Negotiations are due to take place between Mali’s authorities and Tuareg movements on the administration of the area after a preliminary agreement was signed in neighbouring Burkina Faso in June.
“This is the only area where the state’s sovereignty is not enforced,” minister Boubèye Maïga acknowledged.
Islamist groups, too, are still around. Last year, they conquered much of Mali’s arid North under the leadership of the Ansar Dine faction and its commander Iyad Ag Ghaly.
He was linked to the recent release of four French hostages in the region and has been regaining influence and respectability.
“Ansar Dine fighters have come back in the past few weeks, with total impunity. This is the context of anarchy in which terrorists murdered two journalists on Saturday,” RFI reported.