BAMAKO (Reuters) -Mali’s army said on Tuesday it had taken the northern rebel stronghold of Kidal after carrying out a raid that inflicted heavy losses on armed insurgents.
Ethnic Tuareg rebels, who have long controlled much of the north from Kidal, last month seized a base vacated by the departing U.N. peacekeeping mission, raising the spectre of a showdown as the army headed north to take it back.
“Today, our armed and security forces have taken over Kidal. Our mission is not complete,” Mali’s coup leader, President Assimi Goita, said on X.
Goita said that the goal was to re-establish the territorial integrity of the West African country.
A spokesman for the rebels said they had made a strategic decision to leave the city, allowing the army to take it back.
Reuters was unable to verify the situation on the ground.
Kidal holds particular significance for Tuareg rebel groups who have long complained of government neglect and sought autonomy for the desert region they call Azawad.
Security analysts say a drawn out fight for the town could have far-reaching impacts for Mali and its West African neighbours.
Mali, on the Sahara Desert’s southern fringe, has been plagued by violence since 2012, when Islamist militants hijacked a northern Tuareg uprising.
The Tuaregs signed a peace accord with the Bamako government in 2015, but the Islamists, linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, have gone on to kill thousands of civilians.
Violence has increased since Mali’s military took power in two coups in 2020 and 2021, kicked out French forces who were fighting the Islamists, teamed up with Russian military contractor Wagner Group, and ordered the U.N. mission to leave.
The U.N. had brokered the 2015 peace deal and played a role in maintaining calm. That fell apart when it began packing up in August and the Tuareg rebels and the army started fighting over areas the U.N. was vacating.
The military government of neighbouring Burkina Faso, which also seized power in a coup last year, welcomed the “liberation of Kidal” in a statement and reiterated its support for Mali’s junta.
(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; writing by Anait Miridzhanian and Sofia Christensen; editing by Edward McAllister, Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie)