Mali’s president has called for a ceasefire after a number of soldiers were killed in fierce fighting with Tuareg rebels in the country’s north.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita appealed for an “immediate ceasefire” in the fighting in Kidal that had left “several wounded and caused the loss of human life,” the a government spokesman said in a statement on Wednesday.
Keita’s plea was “in line with requests by the UN secretary general and [made] in the name of the international community,” said the statement read on public ORTM television by Mahamane Baby.
National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid told the AFP news agency that Kidal was now being held by three armed groups.
“We took several towns from where the army fled without a fight,” he added, citing the towns of Anderamboukane, Menaka, Aguelhoc, Tessalit and Anefis.
Mohamed Ag Rhissa, a leader within MNLA, told AFP by telephone his group had taken “control of the whole town of Kidal” and that “we have prisoners”.
The fighting first broke out during a visit to Kidal on Saturday by Prime Minister Moussa Mara, whose government is backed by French soldiers who have helped dislodge the rebels.
The government has said that the MNLA is being backed in Kidal by fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and others.
“Our men are still on the ground fighting the joint forces of AQIM, MUJAO and other militants. That’s all we can say at the moment,” a Malian defence ministry source had said earlier.
Alghabass Ag Intalla, secretary general of the High Council for the Unity of Azawad, said his group and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) had also played a key role in the fighting.
“This morning, we were the first to have been attacked by the Malian army. So we took up our responsibilities. We mobilised the MNLA and MAA and together we took control of the city,” he said.
The fighting comes barely two weeks after Tuareg political factions held a meeting in Kidal to discuss a possible solution to the ongoing crisis in the country. The meeting was attended by UN officials and the French military.
Mali descended into crisis in January 2012, when the MNLA launched the latest in a string of Tuareg insurgencies in the north.
A subsequent coup in Bamako led to chaos, and fighters linked to al-Qaeda overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of Mali’s northern half.
A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 ousted the fighters, but sporadic attacks have continued and the Tuareg’s demand for autonomy has not been resolved.
But the process deeply divided the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad, the minority Tuareg name for their homeland in northern Mali.
The French army announced on Wednesday it had sent 100 soldiers to Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, where 1,000 of its troops are already stationed.