Mali’s army has recaptured the strategic northern town of Kidal, a stronghold of Tuareg-dominated separatist groups that has long posed a major sovereignty issue for the ruling junta.
The capture of Kidal is a significant symbolic success for Mali’s military leaders, who seized power in 2020.
Violence has escalated in the north of Mali since August, with the military, rebels and jihadists vying for control as the UN stabilisation mission, MINUSMA, withdraws from the country and evacuates its camps, triggering a race to seize territory.
“Today our armed and security forces have seized Kidal,” the head of the junta, Colonel Assimi Goita said in a statement read by a presenter during a special news flash on state television.
“The (Malian Armed Forces) took up position in the town of Kidal this Tuesday,” the general staff said earlier in a statement on social media.
The rebels also issued a statement later in the day, admitting they had lost their stronghold town but vowing to keep fighting.
The Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP), an alliance of predominantly Tuareg armed groups, said it had withdrawn from Kidal “for strategic reasons” after having “for several days halted (the army’s) advance by inflicting great human and material losses”.
“The fight continues,” the group insisted.
The army and the state have for years been virtually absent from the town of Kidal, which has been controlled by the predominantly Tuareg armed groups.
But the junta had long signalled its determination to retake it.
Two officers told AFP on condition of anonymity that the rebels had left the town when the soldiers entered.
Another officer said the army controlled the airstrip and a camp recently evacuated by the UN peacekeepers.
The gathering and verifying of information is complicated by the impossibility of gaining access to the terrain.
On Friday, separatist rebels had the telephone network cut off as the army advanced towards the town.
The insubordination of the Kidal region – where the army suffered humiliating defeats between 2012 and 2014 – was a source of irritation for the government in the capital, Bamako.
Mali’s current military leaders have made the restoration of territorial sovereignty their mantra.
The state had until now barely regained a foothold in Kidal since May 2014, when its armed forces were driven out after a visit by then-prime minister Moussa Mara led to clashes with the rebels.
The fighting left many soldiers dead.
More recently, as the army advanced towards Kidal, many of the town’s tens of thousands of residents fled, according to social networks.
The army called for calm. It said it had taken steps to ensure the safety of the residents, whom it asked to obey soldiers.
A large military column stationed since early October in the village of Anefis, about 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of Kidal, set off last weekend in its direction.
Supported by air assets, it encountered battles along the way.
The junta leader spoke of “heavy losses” inflicted on the enemy.
“Our mission is not over. I remind you that it consists in recovering and securing the integrity of the territory,” he said.
The rebels do not want the UN peacekeepers to hand their camps back to the Malian army, saying it contravenes previously agreed ceasefire and peace deals struck with the government.
When MINUSMA left its camp in Kidal on October 31, the rebels immediately seized control.
Since July, the UN mission has withdrawn nearly 6,000 civilian and uniformed personnel, after the ruling junta demanded the mission depart from Mali.
The deadline for withdrawal, set by the UN Security Council, is December 31.
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