Mali admits military setback in northern town
Mali was in crisis Thursday after its troops were driven out of the flashpoint town of Kidal by Tuareg separatists in a humiliating defeat forcing the government to call for an "immediate ceasefire".
Ministers have not revealed how many lives have been lost in clashes with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and other armed groups in Kidal since fighting broke out on Saturday.
But an MNLA leader said 40 Malian soldiers had been killed and 70 taken prisoner, while 50 "brand new" 4x4s and 12 armoured vehicles had been seized along with several tonnes of weapons and ammunition.
The latest military setback in a country plagued by ethnic tension, but just beginning to enjoy relative stability, has sent shockwaves through the West African state.
Paris called Thursday for the cessation of hostilities in the rebel-infested north of its former colony, pressing for an urgent resumption of talks between rebel groups and Bamako.
"It is essential that hostilities cease and inclusive talks start," said foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal.
The Malian army has been pinned back since Saturday by a coalition of several armed groups, including Tuareg separatists.
An African security source said that the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUC) was the main fighting force, adding that the MNLA and Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) also took part.
The government claims the rebel assault is being backed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and "drug traffickers", a claim rejected by the Tuareg fighters.
The most violent clashes took place outside the regional governor's office in Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) northeast of Bamako.
The town is the cradle of Mali's Tuareg separatist movement, which claims independence for a vast swathe of northern desert it calls "Azawad" and has launched several rebellions since the 1960s.
The MNLA has been in de facto control of the town since a French-led military intervention codenamed Operation Serval liberated northern Mali from the grasp of Islamists who had captured its towns and cities in a sweeping offensive in 2012.
Residents and a source from MINUSMA described Kidal as "calm" on Thursday.
But the violence has been met with hostility in Bamako and several regional towns, where critics have accused France and MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali, of apathy in the face of Tuareg aggression.
In the capital as well as in Gao, the largest city in the north, protesters chanted "free Kidal", "down with MINUSMA, down with France", and "MINUSMA out" while a French school in Bamako shut down for the day, as a "security measure".
"We are sad this morning, for Malians killed in recent fighting... and for this country which was just managing to rebuild," Adam Thiam, of the Republican daily newspaper, wrote in a comment piece.
In an effort to contain growing resentment, the authorities have redoubled appeals to the public for calm and restraint, insisting that "dialogue" is their priority.
Militants exchanged fire with Malian soldiers over several hours on Wednesday, gaining a decisive upper hand.
The government admitted the failure of the army and called for an "immediate cease-fire", appealing to Malians to demonstrate "a high sense of responsibility, to avoid any confusion or any stigmatisation" which could damage Malian unity or relations with international partners.
"MINUSMA, the Serval force and representatives of the international community do not need to worry. They are not our enemies," it said in a statement.
The rebels also claim to have peacefully taken control of a number of smaller nearby settlements, including Menaka, Aguelhoc and Anderamboukane, although this could not immediately be independently verified.
Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said on the state-run ORTM television station however that army positions throughout northern Mali remain intact outside of Kidal.
"Currently, we have pulled out of Kidal... Menaka is under pressure but it has not fallen and, throughout the other sectors -- Tessalit, Aguelhoc and in the regions of Gao and Timbuktu -- our positions are intact," he said.
He said figures were not yet available for the number of soldiers who had been killed or taken prisoner but added that the true number of captives was smaller than the rebels claimed.
The minister said Mali was considering seeking the support of soldiers from Operation Serval, deployed in January 2013 to dislodge Islamist militants who had been occupying northern Mali for 10 months.
"In Menaka, we have a relationship with the Serval force that is ready to positively consider our request for support.
"We have a relationship with Serval that would enable us to discuss the nature of any support we ask of them, according to how situation evolves," he said.