KIDAL, Mali, (Reuters) – Mali sent in troops yesterday to retake Kidal from Tuareg separatists after six government workers and two civilians were killed, according to the United Nations, during an attack on the regional governor’s office.
At least eight soldiers were also killed and around 30 civil servants captured by rebels during clashes that broke out while Prime Minister Moussa Mara was on a visit to the northern town.
A spokesman for the separatists denied that anyone had been killed inside the government building.
Gunfire had already broken out before Mara’s arrival early on Saturday and he was forced to take shelter in an army base.
“In light of this declaration of war, the Republic of Mali is henceforth at war,” Mara told a Reuters reporter inside the base overnight.
He told a news conference on Sunday after he moved to Gao, another city in the north, that the government had already sent troops, including special forces, to retake Kidal.
“Reinforcements are on the way to Kidal. The objective is to totally retake Kidal,” a senior military source also told Reuters, asking not to be named.
Mara was visiting the town, a stronghold of Tuareg separatists, for the first time since his appointment last month as part of efforts to revive long-delayed talks with northern armed groups.
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 before a French-led military operation, known as Serval, drove them back last year.
The government and a grouping of armed groups including the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which broke with the Islamists ahead of the French offensive, signed an agreement to hold talks over autonomy last year.
But the clashes, the most serious pitting the government against Tuareg fighters since the French intervention, now threaten to sink efforts to find a peaceful solution to the long cycle of rebellions in the West African nation’s desert north.
The United States condemned the violence, saying it undermined the country’s fragile peace.
“We call for the immediate release of all hostages, and urge all parties to refrain from violence and from any acts that place civilians at risk,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “The way to resolve these issues is through an inclusive and credible negotiation process, not through violence and intimidation.”