Mali jumps from frying pan into fire: Tuareg declare ‘ethnic war’ in Kidal
OUAGADOUGOU - Tuareg separatist rebels warned the Malian army Tuesday against attacking the regional capital of Kidal after the conflict-torn country's military said it was advancing on the key northern flashpoint.
"If we are attacked, it will be the end of negotiations and we will fight to the end," said Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, vice president for the minority Tuaregs' National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which currently controls Kidal.
Malian troops were advancing on Kidal to retake it from minority Tuareg separatist rebels accused of "ethnic cleansing" after a wave of expulsions of black residents.
The city has been the subject of a tug-of-war between the Malian government, which wants to regain control of the regional capital, and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a rebel group from the country's light-skinned Tuareg people.
Malian troops have been deployed in four "battle groups" to encircle Kidal, army spokesman Souleymane Maiga said.
The move came after dozens of black inhabitants were expelled from the city over the weekend by the MNLA in an act denounced as "ethnic cleansing" by the government, which says the presence of troops in the city is "non-negotiable" ahead of nationwide elections planned for July.
"They (the Malian military) are en route to Kidal and they just arrived in Anefis in large numbers and heavily armed," a resident of Anefis, a stop-off point 200 kilometres (125 miles) south of Kidal, said.
The army would not specify the number of soldiers sent to the region.
The MNLA has denied targeting black inhabitants but claims it has arrested dozens, including an army officer, in a hunt for "infiltrators" sent by the Malian authorities.
"We cannot accept that Malians are taken hostage by criminals," Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly said in an interview in Paris on Monday.
"The army will march on Kidal," he said, adding that "what happened in Kidal may accelerate the agenda".
The advance comes with less than two months to go until a July 28 presidential election seen as essential to restoring democratic rule in the battle-scarred West African nation.
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.
Former colonial ruler France sent troops in January to block an advance by the extremists on the capital Bamako and pushed them out of the main cities and into desert and mountain hideouts.
The French army then allowed the MNLA back into Kidal, ignoring demands by the Malian military to be allowed into the city and raising fears in Bamako, 1,500 kilometres to the southwest, that Paris wants to let the Tuareg rebels keep the city as part of an eventual deal for self-rule.
While French troops control the airport and work with the MNLA in Kidal, the separatists have rejected any suggestion that they should allow the Malian military or government into the town, which has been rocked by violence since the intervention.
In the latest of a string of deadly attacks a suicide bomber blew himself up Tuesday at the house of an MNLA leader suspected by the Malian army of being an informant for the French military.
"The suicide bomber was waiting for someone in the (MNLA) colonel's house when he was caught by some youths and set off his bomb. He is dead and there is one person wounded," a military source said.
On April 12, four Chadian soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing in a city centre market and in February there were two suicide attacks -- the first aimed at French soldiers in which the driver of an explosives-laden car died and the second killing seven MNLA members at a checkpoint.