Nomadic Tuareg rebels backed by former soldiers from Libya stepped up attacks on towns in northern Mali on Wednesday, ending a fragile peace that had held between the separatists and the government since 2009.
About 500 armed Tuaregs who fought for former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi sought refuge in Mali late last year as his rule crumbled, raising concerns that their presence would re-ignite uprisings in the Sahara.
Fighters launched attacks around the northern towns of Aguelhok and Tessalit near the border with Algeria early on Wednesday, a day after rebels tried to seize the town of Menaka, prompting fierce clashes with Malian government forces who used combat helicopters to push them back.
A spokesman for the Tuareg rebel group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) said its fighters, armed with AK-47s and heavy weapons, attacked military targets in the towns in assaults that would continue until the Tuareg homeland of Azawad was granted independence.
“Until this objective is reached, we will continue efforts to cleanse the territory of its Malian occupiers,” Moussa Ag Acharatoumane said by telephone, adding the assault was a response to a Malian military deployment in the zone.
He said that the MNLA had a fighting force of about 1,000 men, including about 100 ex-combatants from Libya, and had taken control of Aguelhok by Wednesday afternoon.
A military official said the Tuareg fighters repelled from Menaka on Tuesday had moved north and attacked Aguelhok before sunrise, and that a separate group had headed further north towards the town of Tessalit.
At least one soldier was killed and several others wounded in the fighting in Tessalit, a military source said, a day after the government said a Malian soldier and several assailants were killed in the fighting around Menaka.
Northern Mali, a remote desert zone 1,000km up the Niger River from the capital, Bamako, has a long history of uprisings by nomadic rebels who pay scant -attention to state boundaries with Niger, Algeria and Libya.
Qaddafi encouraged their aspirations to an independent Saharan identity, both fostering and then helping to quash their rebellions. Their last uprising formally ended with a peace deal with the Mali government in 2009.
Ag Acharatoumane said the group had no plans to attack towns beyond Mali’s borders. “This stops at the borders of Niger, Algeria, and Burkina Faso,” he said.
He said the MNLA had no ties to al-Qaeda’s North African wing, which has claimed several kidnappings in recent years and is believed to be holding nine Western hostages somewhere in the vast and lawless Sahel zone.
Mali security sources said last year pro-Qaddafi fighters had set up a base 40km outside the northern town of Kidal, equipped with weapons and 50 off-road vehicles.
Mali’s neighbors and partners including the US and the EU fear the consequences of a lawless no-go area in Mali’s north, already home to allies of al-Qaeda behind the spate of kidnappings.
France and the US signaled they would offer military support to Mali while the EU promised 63 million euros in aid to Bamako in November, mostly aimed at shoring up security in the northern desert.