The Malian military has entered the northern city of Kidal for the first time since they were chased out 16 months ago by a Tuareg separatist group.
The move on Friday came after a peace agreement was reached between the government and the separatist fighters last month.
Inhabitants of the remote northern desert town said about 200 Malian soldiers arrived at Kidal’s military camp on a convoy of pick-up trucks.
Residents reported fights between those in favour of the army’s return and other locals who supported the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) rebels.
The return of the Malian forces was confirmed by Abda Ag Kazina, Kidal’s deputy mayor.
“The Malian army arrived in Kidal,” he said. “There were two demonstrations, one was to support the army and the other was to prevent the army from returning.
“There were shots fired in the air and the protesters dispersed.”
The West African country’s interim government wants its administration reinstated in the rebel bastion before a July 28 presidential election that is meant to complete a democratic transition after a military coup in March 2012.
Kidal, like the rest of northern Mali, fell to a mixture of rebel groups during the coup and remained in rebel hands even
after French forces launched a successful military intervention against the fighters.
Under the peace pact, the rebels remained in Kidal but were required as of Friday to return to their barracks under the supervision of UN peacekeepers, to carry no more arms in public and to dismantle all roadblocks.