BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The Malian military was clashing on Wednesday with rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, near the village of Anefis, 113 kilometers (70 miles) south of the rebels' base in the provincial capital of Kidal, local officials said.
It marked the first time the Malian army has fought the NMLA since the rebel group invaded northern Mali last year, forcing the military to withdraw from more than half of the country's territory, in a humiliating blow that left the armed forces in tatters. The NMLA, led by Tuaregs who have long claimed that the central government has marginalized and ignored their traditionally nomadic people, briefly declared independence before being chased out by a trio of al-Qaida-linked groups. The jihadists ruled Mali's north for nearly 10 months until January, when France launched a military intervention to liberate the occupied territory.
"Since 6:30 a.m. they are exchanging fire with heavy weapons," said the mayor of Anefis, Izga Ag Sidi, who was reached by telephone on Wednesday morning. "We are hearing the sound of artillery explosions. For the moment, they appear to be exchanging fire from a distance."
The mayor said that the fighting was taking place around 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of the village, a desolate area of white sand in a region that sits at the base of the vast Sahara desert.
The NMLA said the Malian military had opened fire on them, and had ordered its forces to leave Anefis in order to avoid civilian casualties.
"A convoy of at least 300 (Malian) army vehicles with armored personnel carriers arrived last night. We ordered our men to leave Anefis in order to make sure that the battle would take place outside of the town in order to spare the lives of the population of Anefis," said NMLA leader Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh.
A spokesman for the Malian military confirmed that the combat was continuing. "Yes, there is an operation by our forces that is ongoing in this zone since yesterday night, but I am not yet able to provide any more information," said Capt. Modibo Traore.
The NMLA invaded northern Mali in March 2012 and briefly declared the birth of a new Tuareg nation before being chased out by al-Qaida-linked forces, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb which quickly took over a territory the size of Afghanistan, imposing strict Islamic law, known as Shariah. When they were flushed out in January and February by French forces, the Malian military was able to return to two of the three largest cities in the north — Timbuktu and Gao.
In a move that has created a growing divide between Mali and France, French forces were able to liberate the city of Kidal, but they stood by and did not intervene when a battalion of NMLA fighters returned to their former stronghold, quickly setting up a shadow administration, including their own governor. Kidal is now a de facto Tuareg state.
For weeks, the Malian military has been inching up towards Kidal, never getting any closer than Anefis. The NMLA has said they will go to war with the Malian army if they try to take Kidal.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.