Gunmen attack Malian soldiers as violence surges in restive north

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The Malian army came under attack Sunday from gunmen in the northern rebel stronghold of Kidal, the regional governor told AFP, three days after peace talks with rebels broke down.

“As I speak a lot of shots are being fired in Kidal. Armed men are shooting and the Malian soldiers have retaliated,” Adama Kamissoko told AFP by telephone from the city.

“I do not know exactly who is firing against the Malian army, but it is defending itself.”

A source from his office said the gunmen were Tuareg separatist rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which pulled out of peace negotiations with the government on Thursday.

“Fighters from the MNLA came armed into the city center, not far from a bank where there were Malian troops. They never wanted the army around. The army fired warning shots, and a firefight began,” the source said.

He added that international troops and peacekeeping forces present in the city were not yet involved in the fighting.

The fighting follows two attacks by militants on soldiers in northern Mali in less than 72 hours, marking an upsurge in violence against the army since the breakdown in the negotiations.

Four suicide bombers blew up their car at an army barracks in Timbuktu on Saturday, killing two civilians and wounding six soldiers, and two days after two men threw hand-grenades at Malian troops, wounding two soldiers in Kidal.

Mali has suffered a series of attacks claimed by Islamist insurgents since France launched a military operation in January against al-Qaeda-linked groups occupying the north of the country.

But no Islamist group has claimed any of the recent attacks, with the spotlight falling on the MNLA.

The government urged Malians to remain calm after Saturday’s attack, saying security was being enhanced across the country.

“The multiplication of these attacks shows that the war against terrorism is not over and that the security situation remains fragile throughout the Sahel-Saharan region,” it said in a statement.

The MNLA took control of Kidal in February after the French-led military operation ousted al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had piggybacked on the latest Tuareg rebellion to seize most of northern Mali.

The Malian authorities reclaimed the city after signing a ceasefire deal with the MNLA but the situation has remained tense.

The authorities in Kidal said Thursday that a suicide bomber had been killed after accidentally detonating his explosives in a U.N. World Food Program warehouse near the governor's official residence, which is currently occupied by the MNLA.

But Kamissoko told AFP that it was later discovered that no one had died during the incident.

“After careful checking, there was no death but a serious injury. We are carrying out identification checks now,” he said.

“The explosion took place in a store where there were weapons that do not belong to the regular army,” he added, before the telephone communication was cut off.