BAMAKO, (Reuters) – Tuareg separatists repulsed an attempt by Mali’s army to take control of their stronghold of Kidal and seized another northern town yesterday, setbacks that could potentially embarrass President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s government.
Malian troops launched the offensive to retake control of Kidal after a clash over the weekend, while Prime Minister Moussa Mara was visiting. At least eight soldiers and eight civilians were killed. Government forces then reinforced their positions.
The renewed fighting threatens efforts to find a peaceful solution to the long cycle of Tuareg rebellions in Mali’s desert north.
The last rebellion in 2012 threw Mali into chaos when al Qaeda-linked Islamists hijacked the uprising and seized control of the country’s north. A French-led military operation, known as Serval, drove them back last year.
The clash also upsets plans by France and West African countries to combat Islamist militants operating in the region where they are regarded as a threat to trade and foreign investment, including oil and gas installations in North Africa.
In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate cessation of the fighting and the establishment of a ceasefire in the sprawling West African country. Attaye Ag Mohamed, an official with the Tuareg rebel group MNLA in Kidal, told Reuters by telephone that the group was in control of the northern stronghold town and had also taken control of Menaka, another northern town.