Mali is in the final stages of preparation for an assault on the northern provincial capital of Kidal, the last rebel-held town in the country's north, a military spokesman said on Wednesday.
Lt. Col. Souleymane Maiga refused to give a timeline for the attack on Kidal, saying only that preparations for the deployment are "in an advanced stage" and that Mali can no longer accept having two armies on its soil.
Kidal, the capital of one of the three northern provinces which fell into rebel hands last year, is currently controlled by Tuareg separatists who want to secure a homeland for the Tuareg people, which they call "Azawad" in the local language. The rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, swept into northern Mali a year ago. Their victory was short-lived and within weeks they were pushed out by Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida, who seized control of a territory the size of Afghanistan, imposing Shariah rule and opening jihadist training camps.
In January France sent in warplanes, combat helicopters and 2,000 soldiers to take back the north. Though the French purged the main towns of the al-Qaida groups, they stood by while the NMLA returned to Kidal. Soon, the Tuareg rebels were manning roadblocks in and around the city. They have since started collecting taxes and appointed their own governor, thumbing their nose at the Malian state, even as French soldiers continue to occupy the Kidal airport.
"The army is preparing to take back Kidal. Not just Kidal, but also Tessalit, Abeibara and Aguelhok," said the military spokesman, naming the localities north of Kidal, which are also believed to be mostly controlled by the NMLA. "The highest authority in the land has made clear that we cannot accept that there be two armies in Mali, so (the Malian army) is going to go to Kidal to protect the population and the territorial integrity of our country."
He added that the army needed to secure Kidal in order to allow Mali's administration to return. And in order to prepare for national elections due to be held in July. The presidential elections are seen as a key step in returning Mali to constitutional rule. The various rebel groups were able to seize the north last year in the aftermath of a March 2012 coup in the capital, led by a junior officer. The coup destroyed the military's command-and-control structure, causing disarray and leading to the collapse of the country's defenses in the face of the rebel onslaught.
Soldiers were seen ripping off their uniforms, piling into trucks and abandoning the frontline. Retaking Kidal would be a major symbolic victory for the military.
Because of their humiliating defeat last year at the hands of the NMLA, however, many fear that the military could seek revenge. Already in Timbuktu, in Gao and in Sevare, the Malian army is accused of carrying out reprisal killings of Tuareg civilians accused of complicity with the rebels. Detainees have been subjected to horrific torture by Malian forces, including water-boarding and being injected with acid-like substances that corrode the skin, according to an investigation by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
On Tuesday, the rights group issued a statement warning all warring parties to respect the rules of engagement in the event of an operation in Kidal.
"Civilians have been through enough in the past 16 months. All sides simply must do all they can to minimize any further suffering," said Corinne Dufka, the group's senior researcher who has led several missions to Mali.
Among the measures that HRW is encouraging is the deployment of the paramilitary police, known as gendarmes, alongside the soldiers. In the Malian security force, it is the gendarmes who are mandated to question detainees during military operations and investigate disciplinary lapses by soldiers.
The military appears to have taken this suggestion to heart, and on Wednesday, an officer in the gendarmerie in Gao confirmed by telephone that a unit is accompanying the military contingent.
"The military started advancing (toward Kidal) two days ago. There is a large contingent of soldiers who are being accompanied by a unit from the gendarmerie in order to try to avoid any abuses. Anyone that is caught with an arm in their hands will not be spared, but those who are found unarmed will be treated humanely," said the gendarme, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
A spokesman for the NMLA in Europe warned that there will be blood spilled if the Malian military tries to take Kidal.
"Unfortunately there will be a clash, and the NMLA will be in a position of legitimate defense," said Moussa Ag Assarid, who spoke by telephone from Paris. "We are there to protect the population from the Malian army."
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.
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