Fighting flares between Mali army, rebels

A Malian soldier stands in front of French soldiers on mission in Mali during the inauguration ceremony of Mali's new President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita at the Stade du 26 Mars stadium in Bamako September 19, 2013. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

BAMAKO: Malian soldiers and ethnic Tuareg separatist rebels clashed in the northern desert town of Kidal early Monday, a day after trading gunfire downtown in a battle that has raised fears about whether an unraveling peace accord could lead to protracted fighting in the region.

The clashes in Kidal began only a day after suicide car bombers killed two civilians and wounded seven others in Timbuktu, another northern provincial capital.

And as fears rose over the deteriorating security situation in the north there were reports of tensions at an important military barracks near the capital, Bamako. Soldiers angry about having not received promotions they said they had been promised took an army colonel hostage and demanded to speak to the country’s former coup leader, officials said.

In Kidal, after a lull in violence overnight, fighting flared again early Monday but was brought to a halt when French soldiers arrived at the scene several hours later.

“The French forces are trying to calm the situation but it’s very complicated,” said Hubert de Quievrecourt, a communications adviser with the French military mission. “For the moment there is no casualty toll but the fighting has stopped.”

Residents said the fighting Monday again centered around a bank being guarded by Malian soldiers, where gunfire rang out Sunday. The same Kidal bank was targeted in a grenade attack two weeks ago. Each side accused the other of firing the first shots.

The clashes, which wounded three people, marked the first such violence in Kidal since the rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, and two other groups announced last week they were suspending participation in a peace accord signed with the government in June.

Andrew Lebovich, an analyst who focuses on political and security issues in the Sahel and North Africa, said the fighting stems from divisions within the NMLA and other groups, and frustrations with progress on reconciliation coming to the surface.

“Any comprehensive peace and reconciliation process is becoming more difficult, not just because the groups in question are dissatisfied but also because as fighting and insecurity persist most Malians will be less and less inclined to support any peace deal that contains serious concessions for rebel groups,” he said.

The June peace accord had allowed the Malian military to return to the town, where a separatist rebellion sparked in early 2012 forced the soldiers into retreat. The June agreement also allowed for democratic elections to go forward, the first since a March 2012 coup.

Coup leader Amadou Haya Sanogo was later elevated to a four-star general in the Malian military, skipping over a number of grades and drawing outrage from human rights groups who say he should be tried for abuses committed during his brief rule.

Soldiers took up arms Monday at the Kati military camp near Bamako, according to two military officials who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak.

Sanogo’s spokesman Lt. Mohammad Bou Coulibaly said the situation was under control Monday afternoon and blamed the unrest on elements close to Col. Youssouf Traore.

However, another Malian military official said that the soldiers had taken Col. Mohammad Elhabib Diallo hostage and that he had been wounded by gunfire.

The tensions on several fronts underscore the enormous challenges for new Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who took office in September after winning the election in an August runoff. In an acknowledgement of those obstacles, Keita has made reconciliation a priority for his new government, even naming a minister responsible for the effort and for developing the north.

Talks were to resume between the two sides in Burkina Faso later this year. However, the rebels accused the government of failing to make good on its promises under the deal. Separatist sentiment remains high in Kidal, and the presence of the Malian soldiers since June has been highly controversial.

Tuaregs in northern Mali have sought autonomy dating back to the country’s independence from France in 1960. The government has put down several rebellions over the years, though the one sparked in early 2012 allowed separatists to make their greatest gains to date.

After the March 2012 coup in the capital, Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists also sought to control northern Mali and temporarily sidelined the separatist rebels. After a French-led military intervention ousted the radical Islamic militants from power, though, the NMLA began reasserting itself in Kidal.





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