BAMAKO: Mali launched a military offensive Wednesday to retake control of a northern Tuareg separatist stronghold, the government said, and witnesses reported intense fighting with machine-gun and heavy weapons fire.
The clashes threaten efforts to find a peaceful solution to the long cycle of Tuareg rebellions in the desert north. It also upsets plans by France and several West African countries to combat Islamist militants operating elsewhere in the region.
Malian soldiers and Tuareg separatists clashed Saturday while Prime Minister Moussa Mara was visiting the town of Kidal. At least eight soldiers and eight civilians were killed.
The army had been reinforcing its positions since then, in preparation for an expected campaign to retake Kidal.
“At around 10 a.m., the Malian armed forces launched operations to secure and take control of Kidal. The operations are ongoing,” a government statement said on state radio.
A Defense Ministry source said the army had begun an assault on the regional governor’s office in Kidal after it was seized over the weekend by Tuaregs from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
“The combat will continue until we achieve the total liberation of the town,” the source said.
Spokesmen for the ministry and Mali’s U.N. peacekeeping mission confirmed fighting had restarted.
“These aren’t just shots, it’s fighting. There’s been shooting for an hour without interruption,” Kidal resident Assikadaye Ag Warzagane told Reuters by telephone.
A Kidal trader told Reuters that the town’s main market had been destroyed in the fighting.
Attaye Ag Mohammad, an MNLA official in Kidal, accused the Malian army of starting the clashes and called on the U.N. mission and international community to press for a cease-fire.
“The Malian army launched an offensive, opening up with heavy weapons at 10 o’clock this morning. ... Right now intense heavy weapons and machine-gun fire is continuing,” Mohammad said by telephone. Blasts were heard in the background.
Mali was thrown into turmoil in 2012 when Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists took advantage of a Tuareg-led rebellion and seized control of the country’s north. A French-led military operation, known as Serval, drove them back last year.