BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The Malian military attacked Tuareg rebels early Wednesday and succeeded in taking the village of Anefis, marking the army's first victory and territorial gain without the help of French forces since they were routed from the country's north last year by the separatist fighters, officials on both sides said.
Reached by telephone, the mayor of Anefis said that the confrontation began at 6:30 a.m. just west of the town. Anefis is 113 kilometers (70 miles) south of Kidal, and the last locality before the provincial capital that serves as the base of the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA. For weeks, the army has been inching up toward Kidal, while the rebels have dug in and brought reinforcements, vowing to go to war if the military attempts to attack the strategic city.
NMLA leader Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh confirmed that on Wednesday, their fighters were forced to retreat from Anefis, and that they lost the town to the country's armed forces. He said two of his fighters were killed in the early morning clashes, and one of their vehicles was destroyed.
In a statement later posted on the group's website, the NMLA announced that the attack by the Malian military has prompted them to end the ceasefire they had declared earlier.
"Given that the ceasefire was violated by Malian troops today in Anefis," the statement said. "The NMLA ... reserves the right to defend itself against a genocidal army."
In Mali's capital of Bamako, army spokesman Lt. Col. Souleymane Maiga, who heads the army's public relations office, also confirmed the taking of the town, but said that the death toll is likely going to rise.
One year ago in March, the NMLA forced the military to withdraw from more than half of the country's territory in a humiliating blow that left the armed forces in tatters. Led by Tuaregs who have long claimed that the central government has marginalized and ignored their traditionally nomadic people, the NMLA briefly declared independence before being chased out of the territory they had acquired 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 area, spanning the land mass of Afghanistan.
"Since 6:30 a.m. they are exchanging fire with heavy weapons," said Anefis Mayor Izga Ag Sidi. "We are hearing the sound of artillery explosions."
The NMLA said the Malian military had opened fire on them. "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 Assaleh.
The NMLA invaded northern Mali in March 2012 and briefly declared the birth of a new Tuareg nation before being chased out by fighters who were largely under the command of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. When the extremists 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. They have not as yet been able to return to Kidal, which quickly fell back into the NMLA's hands.
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 and its surrounding region is now a de facto Tuareg state.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius denied any collusion with NMLA.
"Contrary to what has been said ... there is no collusion between the NMLA and France or the French army. We hope simply that the national and international decisions are applied, that is to say that elections be held everywhere at the end of July, notably in Kidal, that there is a dialogue and that the dialogue will happen once the new president is elected," he said in an interview with French TV.
Fabius stressed the importance of the elections.
"The people in the north, notably the Tuaregs, are asking for — which is legitimate — a discussion with the authorities. But there can only be a deep discussion with the authorities after we have new authorities. That comes from elections," he said.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris contributed to this report.