US warns of risk of renewed conflict after Mali clashes

BAMAKO (Reuters) – The United States warned yesterday that northern Mali risked sliding back into war and called for the government and Tuareg separatists to return to talks after deadly clashes in a traditional rebel stronghold at the weekend.

The Malian army was preparing to launch an assault on the northern town of Kidal, where at least eight soldiers and eight civilians including six government officials were killed when rebels attacked the regional governor’s office on Saturday while Prime Minister Moussa Mara was in the town.

Thirty-two civil servants taken hostage in the attack were released yesterday after negotiations, according to Radhia Achouri, spokesman for MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita outlined a twin-track strategy in a national address yesterday evening, and said the government would pursue negotiations with the separatists but also that the army would play its role.

“The authors of the hostage-taking and summary executions will be pursued by national and international justice because these crimes amount to crimes against humanity,” he said.

“Our forces of defence and security … will carry out fully the mission that the Malian constitution assigns to them,” he said.

Mali’s international partners have been pushing for a final, negotiated settlement to a long cycle of Tuareg independence uprisings since al Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked a Tuareg rebellion in 2012 and seized northern Mali. After a French-led intervention drove the Islamists from major cities and towns last year, Mali’s government and separatist groups signed a deal in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou to hold talks about greater autonomy for the north.

But the lines between the independence fighters and their erstwhile Islamist allies remain blurred, and it has been difficult to get government and separatists to sit down together.

“We are very concerned about what happened, and that the response might lead to this region going back into conflict,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield told journalists in Paris yesterday.

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