Mali junta says it has ‘seized’ rebel stronghold of KidalTue, 14 Nov 2023 14:49:03 GMT

Mali’s junta leader announced on Tuesday that the army had recaptured the strategic northern town of Kidal, a stronghold of Tuareg-dominated separatist groups that has long posed a major sovereignty issue for the government.The capture of Kidal, if confirmed, would be a considerable symbolic success for the ruling junta, which seized power in 2020. “Today our armed and security forces have seized Kidal,” Colonel Assimi Goita said in a statement read by a presenter during a special news flash on state television.”The (Malian Armed Forces) took up position in the town of Kidal this Tuesday,” the general staff had earlier said in a statement on social media.The army and the state have for years been virtually absent from the town, which was controlled by the predominantly Tuareg armed groups.The junta has long signalled its determination to retake the town.The insubordination of the Kidal region, where the army suffered humiliating defeats between 2012 and 2014, was a source of irritation for the government in the capital, Bamako.Mali’s current military leaders have made the restoration of territorial sovereignty their mantra.The state had until now barely regained a foothold in Kidal since May 2014, when its armed forces were driven out after a visit by then-prime minister Moussa Mara led to clashes with the predominantly Tuareg rebels.The fighting left many soldiers dead. More recently, as the army advanced towards Kidal — a historic centre of independence insurgencies and a crossroads on the road to Algeria — many of the town’s tens of thousands of residents fled, according to social networks.The army had called for calm. It said it had taken steps to ensure the safety of the residents, whom it asked to obey soldiers.Two officers told AFP on condition of anonymity that the rebels had left the town when the soldiers entered. Another officer said the army controlled the airstrip and a camp recently evacuated by the UN stabilisation mission, MINUSMA. The rebel groups did not immediately respond to requests for comment.Information is difficult to verify in the remote town. The rebels on Friday cut telephone links in anticipation of an army offensive.- UN withdrawal -A large military column stationed since early October in the village of Anefis, about 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of the town of Kidal, set off last weekend in the strategic town’s direction. Supported by air assets, it encountered battles along the way.Violence has escalated in the north of Mali since August, with the military, rebels and jihadists vying for control as the UN mission evacuates its camps, triggering a race to seize territory.The rebels do not want the peacekeepers to hand their camps back to the Malian army, saying it would contravene previously agreed ceasefire and peace deals struck with the government.When MINUSMA left its camp in Kidal on October 31, the rebels immediately seized control.Since July, the UN mission has withdrawn nearly 6,000 civilian and uniformed personnel, after the ruling junta demanded the mission depart from Mali. The deadline for withdrawal, set by the UN Security Council, is December 31. kt-sd-mk-lal/prc/kjm