Dakar: Malian Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga has said around 50 soldiers had been killed during recent fighting with armed rebels in the northern desert town of Kidal.
“We have about 50 killed, unfortunately, and 48 injured. We don’t know the toll of the other side but we know they also suffered losses,” Maiga told the public broadcaster ORTM yesterday.
Armed groups including the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) humiliated Mali’s army in a deadly offensive across the northern desert last week which saw them seize control of Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) northeast of Bamako.
Maiga denied that the smaller settlement of Menaka was also under rebel control, but admitted the army was “cohabiting” with armed groups in the town 660 kilometres (410 miles) from Kidal.
“Aside from Kidal we are holding all our positions in the Kidal region, that is Tessalit, Aguelhok, and then in the Gao region in Menaka, Ansongo, Almoustarat,” he said.
The Mali government on Friday signed a ceasefire deal with the MNLA as well as the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUC) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) after mediation by the African Union.
Kidal is the cradle of Mali’s Tuareg separatist movement, which wants independence for a vast swathe of northern desert it calls “Azawad” and has launched several rebellions since the 1960s.
The MNLA ended a nine-month occupation of the Kidal governor’s offices in November last year as one of the conditions of a June peace deal that paved the way for presidential elections.
But the process deeply divided the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad.
Up until the agreement, the Tuareg group had refused to allow any government soldiers or civil servants into Kidal.
The country descended into crisis in January 2012, when the MNLA launched the latest in a string of Tuareg
insurgencies in the north, which the army was ill-equipped to defend.
A subsequent coup in Bamako led to chaos, and militants linked to al-Qaeda overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of Mali’s northern desert.
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.