Armed men seized three military bases in separate attacks on Tuesday in the remote northeast corner of Mali, and President Amadou Toumani Toure issued a plea to avoid reprisals against the country’s Tuaregs, who account for around six percent of Mali's almost 14 million people.
Mali’s northern deserts near the Algerian border were the scene of a Tuareg secessionist rebellion in 1990. And despite a peace deal the following year, there was sporadic trouble in the region until the mid-1990s.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Defence Ministry said “armed individuals riding four-wheel drive vehicles attacked military bases 1 and 2 in Kidal early this morning,” a town situated 1,585 kilometres from the capital Bamako.
“Army and security forces have been given the means and the orders to restore calm,” the statement added.
Yaya Dolo, chief aide for the governor of Kidal, told IRIN by telephone before sunset that the army had repelled the assailants and was in control of the town but that several people had been killed.
The early morning attacks, which residents said were followed by several hours of fierce fighting, took place as another military base in the town of Menaka, 400 kilometres south of Kidal, also came under siege.
The Defence Ministry said that “an officer in the Menaka regiment defected,” while town resident Mohamed Raba told IRIN that “rebel fighters looted the barracks and took arms and munitions.”
“The town is in panic,” said Raba, who works for the AMAP advertising agency.
Communications to Kidal were down for several hours but restored in the late afternoon. “We are hiding in our homes,” said Alhousseini Coulibaly, an official working for an educational aid group, PASED. “It’s hard to know what’s happening exactly in town but the fighting lasted from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and we can still hear sporadic firing.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks and government and military officials did not identify the assailants. But a military source who asked not to be identified said the attacks could be the work of Colonel Hassan Fagaga, a Tuareg officer who said he had deserted the army earlier this year.
“There was heavy artillery shooting and then volleys of machine-gun fire,” said Kidal resident Hamidou Diallo.
Aid officials in Bamako told IRIN that there were reports of aid vehicles being hijacked but that the situation remained too confused to confirm these reports.
Kidal stands at the foot of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains tucked between Algeria and Niger and is in the heart of the northern deserts, a region peopled by nomads and merchants and often the scene of banditry and smuggling.
In an apparent bid to avoid any reprisal action against the Tamashek-speaking Tuareg people, President Toure said: “Those who today attacked the military base in Kidal must not be mistaken with our other Tamashek and other compatriots who live with us with our same problems, who have chosen Mali, who have chosen loyalty, and who have the same rights as us.”
The 1991 pact to end the Tuareg rebellion included the integration of former rebels into the army and civilian sectors as well as better education and health care facilities, especially in the northeast and east.