The Malian armed forces have attacked Tuareg rebels and succeeded in taking the village of Anefis, marking the army’s first victory without the help of French forces, officials on both sides said.
At least two people were killed in Wednesday’s clashes, with troops reported to be advancing towards the town of Kidal – the last rebel stronghold.
The mayor of Anefis said that the confrontation in Anefis began shortly after dawn, just west of the town.
Anefis is 113km south of Kidal, and the last locality before the provincial capital that serves as the base of the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA.
For weeks, the army has been inching towards Kidal, while the rebels have dug in and brought reinforcements, vowing to go to war if the military attempts to attack the strategic city.
NMLA leader Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh confirmed that on Wednesday, their fighters were forced to retreat from Anefis, and that they lost the town to the country’s armed forces.
He said two of his fighters were killed in the early morning clashes, and one of their vehicles was destroyed.
In Mali’s capital of Bamako, army spokesman Lt. Col. Souleymane Maiga, who heads the army’s public relations office, also confirmed the taking of the town, but said that the death toll is likely going to rise.
One year ago in March, the NMLA, forced the military to withdraw from more than half of the country’s territory in a humiliating blow that left the armed forces in tatters.
Led by Tuaregs who have long claimed that the central government has marginalised and ignored their traditionally nomadic people, the NMLA briefly declared independence before being chased out of the territory they had acquired by a trio of al-Qaeda-linked groups.
The fighters ruled Mali’s north for nearly 10 months until January, when France launched a military intervention to liberate the occupied area, spanning the land mass of Afghanistan.