Tuareg-army gun battle shatters uneasy calm in northern Mali
BAMAKO - Mali's army exchanged fire with Tuareg militants in the rebel stronghold of Kidal on Wednesday, witnesses said, shattering an uneasy calm which had held since deadly weekend clashes between the two sides.
"People have started firing guns. The Malian army is shooting and the Tuareg rebels too," a resident contacted by telephone said.
The fighting comes four days after the two sides clashed during a visit to Kidal by Prime Minister Moussa Mara, whose government is backed by French soldiers who have helped dislodge rebels and armed Islamic extremists from the restive desert north.
The fighters of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) took 32 civil servants hostage but released them on Monday. The battle left eight Malian soldiers and 28 rebels dead.
"Gunfire has erupted from both sides. This was the inevitable result of the strengthening of both sides' positions," a source from the MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, said.
Another resident said most of the shots seemed to be coming from the Malian army.
The release of the hostages came as 1,500 Malian troops poured into Kidal, sent to restore government control to the bastion of Mali's Tuareg separatist movement, 1,500 kilometre (900 miles) northeast of the capital.
Mali descended into crisis in January 2012, when the MNLA launched the latest in a string of Tuareg insurgencies in the north.
A subsequent coup in Bamako led to chaos, and militants linked to Al-Qaeda overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of Mali's northern half.
A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 ousted the extremists, but sporadic attacks have continued, and the Tuareg demand for autonomy has not been resolved.
Tuareg separatists occupied the regional governor's office for nine months before handing it back in November last year as part of a June peace deal that paved the way for presidential elections.
But the process deeply divided the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad, the minority Tuareg name for their homeland in northern Mali.
Up until the agreement, the Tuareg group had refused to allow any government soldiers or civil servants into the desert town.
The UN Security Council said in a statement on Tuesday it "strongly condemned the violent clashes in Kidal on May 17 and 18" calling for an end to violence across northern Mali.
"The members of the Security Council insisted on the need for those responsible for these actions to be identified and held accountable," the statement added.
"The members of the Security Council called on all parties to act with restraint and refrain from any further violence that could threaten civilians."
They also called for "sincere" peace talks and "reiterated that only a credible and inclusive negotiation process can bring long-term peace and stability throughout the country".
MINUSMA sources said several hundred people had fled their homes in Kidal to the relative safety of nearby desert camps.
Earlier Tuesday, Mali's foreign affairs minister asked the Security Council to expand the peacekeeping mandate and efforts to disarm Tuareg rebels.
With the UN peacekeeping mission soon up for renewal, Abdoulaye Diop requested "a much more robust mandate, under Chapter VII of the UN charter" -- which allows for the use of force.
This would enable the soldiers to "deal with threats on the ground and disarmament of all armed groups, in particular the MNLA", he said.
Bamako will honour its commitments to hold "a sincere dialogue" aimed at a definitive peace agreement with the Tuareg rebels, Diop said.
But he accused the MNLA of colluding with terrorist groups, asking for Security Council condemnation.
Holding up pictures of victims of the Kidal battle, Diop said flags of terrorist groups Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and of Ansar Dine (Defenders of Islam) were seen "flying from the vehicles of the attackers, next to those of the MNLA".
"The attack that occurred at Kidal can't remain unpunished," Diop said, in a video conference from Mali, demanding "an international commission" investigate.
The UN's special representative to Mali, Bert Koenders, who also participated in the video conference, said the UN "remains deeply committed to restoring Mali state authority in Kidal".