Mali army launches assault on rebels

2013-06-05 22:29

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Bamako - Malian soldiers launched an assault Wednesday on armed Tuareg separatists accused of ethnic cleansing in a bid to dislodge them from a key northern stronghold ahead of national elections.

Troops attacked rebel positions south of the regional capital of Kidal at the start of an operation to recapture it from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) after a wave of expulsions of black residents.

"We counted 10 dead and have captured 28 prisoners," said Malian army spokesman Souleymane Maiga, adding that two soldiers had been wounded in the clashes in Anefis, a small town 200 kilometres south of Kidal.

MNLA spokesperson Mossa Ag Attaher confirmed the fighting but said it had lost just one fighter, adding that "we have blown up several vehicles with soldiers inside. We have taken dozens of Malians prisoner."

The group vowed to "advance on all Malian army positions in the territory of Azawad", the name given by the Tuareg rebellion to northern Mali, and appealed to international forces in the region to keep out of the conflict.

"We never wanted to resolve the situation by war but, as this is so, we will defend ourselves until the end," MNLA vice-president Mahamadou Djeri Maiga told AFP in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou, where he is in talks with Malian officials over the elections.

Colonel Didier Dacko, the commander of military operations in northern Mali, told state television two of his soldiers had been wounded as they returned fire for two hours after being shot at by militants in Anefis.

A regional security source told AFP a battalion led by Colonel Elhaj Ag Gamou, a Tuareg who has remained loyal to the army, was around 35 kilometres (22 miles) from Kidal.

"The MNLA have fled the city," he added.

Former colonial power France voiced its support for the army action and called on the rebels to lay down their weapons.

"There can only be one army in Mali, deployed over the whole of the country's territory," a foreign ministry spokesman said.

The fighting erupted after more than 100 black inhabitants were expelled from Kidal by the lighter-skinnned MNLA in an act denounced as "ethnic cleansing" by the government.

The unrest has cast a shadow over the Burkina Faso talks with Malian officials and Tuareg leaders aimed at clearing the way for a presidential election planned for July 28.

The MNLA rose up to fight for independence for the north in January last year and overwhelmed government troops, leading frustrated mid-level officers to launch a coup which toppled elected president Amadou Toumani Toure.

Together with Al-Qaeda-linked militants, they seized key northern cities, but were then chased out by their former Islamist allies.

France sent troops in January to block an advance by the extremists on the capital Bamako, pushing them out of the main cities and into desert and mountain hideouts.

The French then let the MNLA back into Kidal, raising fears in Bamako, 1,500 kilometres to the southwest, that Paris wants to let the Tuareg rebels keep Kidal as part of an eventual deal for self-rule.

While around 200 French troops control the airport, the separatists have rejected any suggestion that they should allow the Malian military or government into the city.

Wednesday's clashes erupted as President Dioncounda Traore and eight other African leaders visited Paris to express their gratitude to President Francois Hollande over France's intervention in Mali.

Hollande was due to receive UNESCO's annual peace prize in recognition of what it described as "the solidarity shown by France to the peoples of Africa".

Hollande acknowledged that it could seem paradoxical to receive a peace prize for having launched a war.

He said he was confident that Mali would emerge stronger as a result of the intervention and elections but acknowledged the continuing threat posed by Islamist militants.

"Terrorists are hiding out across the region. Today they are hitting Niger and perhaps tomorrow they will move elsewhere in Africa," Hollande said.

"The combat is not over. There is still much to do in Mali and elsewhere."

Read more on:    tuareg  |  mali
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