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Mali leader vows more military in rebel stronghold

May 19, 2014

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali’s president on Monday vowed to step up the military’s presence in the rebel-controlled northern town of Kidal after a weekend of violence, while the separatists released 32 hostages who had been taken amid the fighting.

Residents reported several dozen more Malian military vehicles rolling in to Kidal over the course of the day, where the presence of Mali’s army has long been despised.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s address to the nation on state television came just hours after the rebels released 32 hostages who had been taken over the weekend. Six government officials and two civilians were killed during the fighting.

The government initially said the assault amounted to a “declaration of war.” However, Keita said Monday his government would still seek dialogue with the separatists though the perpetrators of the weekend violence would be punished.

“The government will wholeheartedly play its role,” Keita said. “In particular, those who took hostages and carried out summary executions will be pursued by national and international courts.”

The separatist Tuareg rebels stormed Kidal government buildings and took the hostages, killing eight civilians and eight soldiers in the attack.

The assault was apparently prompted by a visit to Kidal on Saturday by newly appointed Prime Minister Moussa Mara, highlighting regional hostility toward the central government in Bamako and casting further doubt on the viability of reconciliation efforts.

The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert, have risen up against the central government in Mali several times since the country’s independence from France in 1960. They have long complained that Mali’s government — which is dominated by ethnic groups from the country’s south — has ignored the nation’s impoverished north.

Their quest for autonomy has had fallout far beyond the land they call the Azawad. It was the Malian government’s weak response to the Tuaregs’ 2012 rebellion that propelled mutinous soldiers to launch a coup in the capital. The overthrow of the president ushered in a power vacuum that allowed secular separatists and radical jihadists to take hold.

The ethnic Tuareg separatists controlled much of northern Mali until al-Qaida-linked fighters hijacked the invasion. A French-led military intervention in 2013 scattered the Islamic extremists, but Tuareg separatists have retained a strong presence in Kidal despite efforts by the central government to control the northern city.

Many ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs later became victims of reprisal killings, blamed for collaborating with the rebels and jihadists who overtook the region and plunged the country into ruin. In a sign of lingering tensions, a group of demonstrators on Monday calling for the Malian government to retake Kidal later attacked Tuareg- and Arab-owned businesses in the town of Gao.

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Follow Baba Ahmed on Twitter at at https://twitter.com/Baba_A— .

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