Bamako (AFP) – Mali’s Prime Minister Moussa Mara warned the country was “at war” with terrorists in the northern city of Kidal, after clashes between separatist militants and the army left dozens dead.
Eight soldiers and 28 insurgents were killed in fighting Saturday outside the regional governor’s offices during Mara’s visit to the desert town, the government said, adding that around 30 civil servants were being held hostage.
“The terrorists have declared war on Mali, so Mali is at war against these terrorists. We will mobilise the resources to fight this war,” Mara told AFP by telephone.
MINUSMA chief Albert Koenders “condemns in the firmest manner” the killings, the UN peacekeeping force said.
The United States called for restraint and the “immediate” release of the hostages.
“We call for the immediate release of all hostages, and urge all parties to refrain from violence and from any acts that place civilians at risk,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional group of 16 countries, also condemned the violence and the “serious deterioration of the political and security situation”.
The Malian government has blamed the clashes on Tuareg separatists but Mara said militant groups had taken advantage of the crisis to infiltrate Kidal on Saturday night “to participate in the chaos alongside other terrorist groups”.
On his return to Bamako, Mara said late Sunday authorities were trying hard to have the hostages released. Without giving details he said some of them had been “killed in cold blood”, while others were freed as they had been wounded.
Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, was the scene of anti-government protests by several hundred people on Friday and Saturday.
– Attackers branded terrorists –
Mara’s predecessor Oumar Tatam Ly was forced to cancel a trip in November to Kidal, the stronghold of Mali’s Tuareg separatist movement, after protesters occupied a runway at the airport.
“When someone attacks the republic, he is a terrorist, whatever his origin or allegiance to a territory. We will take a war without mercy to these terrorists,” said Mara, who was on his first tour of the north since his appointment in April.
He visited the desert caravan town of Timbuktu on Friday, Kidal on Saturday and was due to spend two days in Gao, northern Mali’s largest city, but cut the final leg short to return to Bamako a day early for urgent talks with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Mara said after the talks that the Kidal governor’s offices had been attacked by “jihadists, terrorists, … with the clear aim to destroy and kill”.
Malian troops “reacted accordingly. Today Malian armed forces are in Kidal, (they) are readying themselves for any contingencies,” he said.
The president is expected to raise the Kidal crisis in a televised address to the nation Monday.
Security for the tour had been provided by the United Nations’ MINUSMA force and soldiers from Operation Serval, the French-led military mission against militants in northern Mali.
It was not immediately clear if the French troops were involved in events in Kidal over the weekend.
But MINUSMA said two of its troops had serious gunshot wounds and 21 of its police were injured.
“We urge restraint and refraining from violence which may endanger the civilian population,” the force said in a statement.
“We encourage dialogue as soon as possible to ensure the safety of Kidal. For a lasting solution to the problems of the North, there is no alternative to a peaceful solution.”
– Armed Islamists –
Malian Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga announced reinforcements in Kidal, identifying the rebels as members of the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) “supported by members of terrorist groups.”
“Our forces have taken control of all government buildings except, for the moment, the governor’s offices,” he said in confirming the toll, vowing to rapidly boost forces in Kidal.
The MNLA said it was holding hostage there the regional director of Kidal, a prefect, the governor’s advisor and 24 soldiers, promising “humane treatment” to its captives.
Following a June peace deal that paved the way for presidential elections, the separatists evacuated the governor’s offices in November last year after a nine-month occupation.
But the process deeply divided the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad, the minority Tuareg name for their homeland in northern Mali.
Up until the agreement, the Tuareg group had refused to allow any government soldiers or civil servants into the desert town.
The country descended into crisis in January 2012, when the MNLA launched the latest in a string of Tuareg insurgencies in the north.
A subsequent coup in Bamako led to chaos, and militants linked to Al-Qaeda overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of Mali’s northern half.
A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 ousted the extremists, but sporadic attacks have continued, and the Tuareg demand for autonomy has not been resolved.