Malians celebrate army’s taking of rebel stronghold KidalWed, 15 Nov 2023 17:09:00 GMT

Jubilant Malians have taken to the streets and the ruling junta issued triumphant statements saying the military’s takeover of a key rebel-held town validated its strategic choices.The capture of Kidal — a historic centre of independence insurgencies and a crossroads on the road to Algeria — is the most notable military success by the junta, which seized power in 2020.The Tuareg-dominated rebel groups that had controlled the northern town since driving out the army in 2014 admitted they withdrew for tactical reasons after having fought the army’s advance for several days. There did not appear to be fighting within the town of Kidal itself.In the capital Bamako, the western town of Kati and elsewhere around the West African country, people celebrated the army’s victory, according to images shared on social networks.They show groups of people in Kidal greeting armoured vehicles and pick-up trucks full of Malian soldiers as well as white armed men widely presumed to belong to the Russian paramilitary group Wagner.The junta denies that Wagner fighters are present in Mali.A humanitarian worker, speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety, said looting had taken place overnight in Kidal.Authorities announced a nighttime curfew throughout the region for the next 30 days, beginning Wednesday, which they said could be renewed.Information in the region is difficult to gather and verify.”The army is moving through the town with white soldiers — we don’t know who they are,” an elderly Kidal resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety, told AFP. “People are afraid of them, so there’s nothing left in the town except people like me who can’t afford to leave.”Another resident told AFP that the people seen celebrating in Kidal Tuesday evening were workers from other regions of Mali.- ‘Free’ -But Aliou Toure, a 32-year-old grocer, said Kidal residents are “proud of (their) army”. He said that dancing and alcohol had been prohibited there until the army takeover.Up until then, the Coordination of Azawad Movements, an alliance of predominantly Tuareg armed groups, maintained order in the town. “Now we are free,” he said.On the radio, a presenter said the town’s capture was “a decisive step in the reconquest of the integrity of the territory”, calling it an “historic event”.”Despite the hiccups, the betrayals and the plots (and) the fanciful forecasts, our valiant armed and security forces have achieved their objectives and Mali is and will remain one and indivisible,” said government spokesman Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga.Newspaper headlines glorified the army’s victory.Mali has been deep in turmoil since Salafist insurgencies began in the north in 2012. Jihadist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organisation operate in the country, which also faces banditry. The Tuareg-dominated separatist groups agreed to a ceasefire and peace deal in 2014 and 2015 but took up arms again in August. After losing Kidal, they vowed the fight will continue.- Symbol of insubordination -Mali also faces a political crisis, after back-to-back coups in 2020 and 2021. The ruling junta has broken a military alliance with historic ally, France, and other European partners and turned politically and militarily towards Russia. Most recently, it ordered the UN stabilisation mission to leave.The junta has made restoring territorial sovereignty its mantra.Before it came to power, two thirds of the Sahel country’s territory was thought to be beyond the state’s control. The junta claims its army has gained power with the help of what it calls Russian instructors.It says it has left “terrorists” — a catch-all phrase it uses for both jihadists and separatist rebels — in “disarray”.”The conquest of Kidal sends messages beyond Mali,” researcher Yvan Guichaoua wrote on social media.He said it could inspire other military regimes by suggesting that Russians “are doing the job” and justifying the use of force.Neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger are also ruled by juntas, who seized power after Mali’s 2020 coup. Their leaders have congratulated Mali’s junta on Kidal’s seizure. “The focus on Kidal is part of a series of major political manipulations by a clique of predators,” said political opponent and former presidential candidate Oumar Mariko, a rare dissenting voice, speaking to AFP from exile.”What happens next? The war continues.”