Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara warned on Sunday the country was “at war” with terrorists in the northern city of Kidal, after clashes between separatist militants and the army left dozens dead.
Eight soldiers and 28 insurgents were killed in fighting on Saturday outside the regional governor’s offices during Mara’s visit to the desert town, the Malian government said, adding that about 30 civil servants were being held hostage.
“The terrorists have declared war on Mali, so Mali is at war against these terrorists. We will mobilize the resources to fight this war,” Mara told reporters by telephone.
Albert Koenders, the special representative and head of the UN’s peacekeeping force in Mali — MINUSMA — “condemns in the firmest manner” the killings, the force said.
The US called for restraint and the “immediate” release of the hostages.
“We call for the immediate release of all hostages, and urge all parties to refrain from violence and from any acts that place civilians at risk,” US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
The Economic Community Of West African States, a regional group of 16 countries, also condemned the violence and the “serious deterioration of the political and security situation.”
The Malian government has blamed the clashes on Tuareg separatists, but Mara said militant groups had taken advantage of the crisis to infiltrate Kidal on Saturday night “to participate in the chaos alongside other terrorist groups.”
On his return to Bamako, Mara said late on Sunday that Malian authorities were trying hard to have the hostages released. Without giving details he said some of them had been “killed in cold blood,” while others were freed as they had been wounded.
Kidal, 1,500km northeast of the Malian capital, Bamako, was the scene of anti-government protests by several hundred people on Friday and Saturday.
Mara’s predecessor, Oumar Tatam Ly, was forced to cancel a trip in November last year to Kidal, the stronghold of the Malian Tuareg separatist movement, after protesters occupied a runway at the airport.
“When someone attacks the republic, he is a terrorist, whatever his origin or allegiance to a territory. We will take a war without mercy to these terrorists,” said Mara, who was on his first tour of the north since his appointment last month.
He visited the desert caravan town of Timbuktu on Friday, Kidal on Saturday and was due to spend two days in Gao, northern Mali’s largest city, but cut the final leg short to return to Bamako a day early for urgent talks with Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Mara said after the talks that the Kidal governor’s offices had been attacked by “jihadists, terrorists ... with the clear aim to destroy and kill.”
Malian troops “reacted accordingly. Today Malian armed forces are in Kidal, [they] are readying themselves for any contingencies,” he said.
The Malian president was expected to raise the Kidal crisis in a televised address to the nation yesterday.
Security for the tour had been provided by the MINUSMA and soldiers from Operation Serval, the French-led military mission against militants in northern Mali.
It was not immediately clear if the French troops were involved in events in Kidal over the weekend, but MINUSMA said two of its troops had serious gunshot wounds and 21 of its police were injured.