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Mali army launches assault on Tuaregs

maliBAMAKO: Malian soldiers launched an assault yesterday on armed Tuareg separatists accused of ethnic cleansing, killing 10, 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 km south of Kidal.

The MNLA, which confirmed the fighting, 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 his soldiers had returned fire for two hours after being shot at by militants in Anefis, causing the rebels to retreat. “Currently, four vehicles have been recovered and one destroyed. We recorded two minor injuries including one who was shot in the neck,” he said. Maiga said the army was continuing its advance on Kidal but he could not confirm if it would take the city by the end of the day.

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 km 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 lighterskinnned MNLA fighters in an act denounced as “ethnic cleansing” by the government, which says the presence of troops in the city is “non-negotiable”. 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-Qaedalinked 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, ignoring demands by the Malian military to be allowed into the city and raising fears in Bamako, 1,500 km to the southwest, that Paris wants to let the Tuareg rebels keep Kidal as part of an eventual deal for self-rule. — AFP

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This article was published on 06/06/2013