A gun battle between Malian soldiers and suspected separatist rebels has erupted in the northern town of Kidal, sparking concerns that the violence could escalate amidst already rising tensions. Meanwhile in Guinea, polling stations have begun to announce the preliminary results after Saturday’s elections.
Northern Mali Tense After Two Days of Clashes
On Sunday, the Malian army came under attack from gunmen in the northern rebel stronghold of Kidal. The regional governor has confirmed the attack, which appears to be a sign that violence is intensifying against the army after peace talks with Tuareg rebels broke down last week. According to a source in Adama Kamissoko’s office, “fighters from the MNLA came armed into the city centre, 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 governor has indicated that the exchange ended after more than an hour with “some wounded,” however it was not immediately clear whether the casualties were soldiers or militants.
International troops and UN peacekeeping forces, who were already present in the city, were deployed after the attack in order to protect the town hall, where the governor lives and works. According to Kamissoko’s office, the gunmen were separatist rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which is the main Tuareg group that is involved in the peace talks. A statement released by the MNLA has accused Malian troops of “flagrant aggression” in Kidal, stating that three of its fighters had been injured in exchanges of fire.”
Since Tuareg rebels, who are claiming autonomy for northern Mali, pulled out of peace talks on Thursday, there have been two militant attacks that have been carried out on Malian soldiers in the northern regions of the country. On Saturday, four suicide bombers blew up their car at a military barracks in the city of Timbuktu. Two civilians were killed and six troops were wounded. This attack occurred less than twenty-four hours after militants threw grenades at the army in Kidal, wounding two soldiers. Although no Islamist militant group has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks, many have blamed them on militants belonging to the MNLA.
While the Malian government urged Malians to remain calm after Saturday’s attacks, stating that security was being enhanced across the country, the breakdown in peace talks, coupled with an increase in attacks, has dealt a blow to hopes that peace will last in the troubled West African nation. A statement released by the government indicated that “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.”
In February of this year, the MNLA took control of Kidal after the French-led military operation ousted al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had taken advantage of the latest Tuareg rebellion to seize most of northern Mali. Although Malian authorities reclaimed the city after signing a ceasefire accord with the MNLA, the situation has remained tense. The June 18 Ouagadougou accord between the rebels and the government effectively enabled the Malian military to return to Kidal in order to prepare for the July presidential elections, which saw Ibrahim Boubacar Keita elected President. The agreement, which was signed in Burkina Faso, outlines that the government and rebels agreed to respect the country’s territorial integrity and that they will hold peace talks that will focus on the status of northern Mali, which the Tuaregs call Azawad. However on Thursday, the Tuareg rebels indicated that the government had not kept its commitments to start prisoner releases, and therefore they would pull out of any further discussions.
Elections in Guinea
Meanwhile in Guinea, the first polling stations across the country began to declare the results of Saturday’s elections. On Saturday, the country’s voters chose from more than 1,700 candidates vying for 114 seats in a national assembly that will replace the transitional body that has been running the country since military rule came to an end in 2010. Sources have indicated that there were no major incidents reported on Saturday. Guinea’s election commission has announced that it will publish “partial and provisional” results on Monday and Tuesday prior to releasing the preliminary results on Wednesday, which will show the full picture across the country. Under Guinea’s election law, the supreme court has to confirm the final results within ten days of polls closing.
While opposition activists, election observers and local media have reported that there were logistical problems in many polling stations, which prevented people from voting, including shortages of indelible ink, envelopes and delays in the provision of electoral lists, the observation mission of the Economic Community of West African States, which is made up of 100 observers who are led by former Togolese prime minister Edem Kodjo, has stated that the elections “were held in acceptable conditions of freedom and transparency.” The vote, which was originally due to be held within six months of the swearing-in of President Alpha Conde in 2010, had been delayed amidst disputes pertaining to its organization, resulting in violence between government and opposition activists.
Despite reaching a peace agreement with the Malian government in June of this year, on Thursday, Tuareg separatists confirmed that they were suspending participation in the peace deal, accusing the Malian government of not respecting the accord that had been reached between the two groups. While the peace accord enabled national elections to go forward in July and August, and allowed Mali’s military to return to the northern Tuareg town of Kidal, it also called for the central government to commence peace talks within two months of the President’s election. In turn, under the signed deal, the government and rebels would agree to respect the country’s territorial integrity and hold peace talks that would focus on the status of the north. Although the signing of the agreement was seen by many as an easing of tensions in a region of Africa that has been on numerous occasions affected by Tuareg uprisings, this latest falling out demonstrates that tensions and a lack of trust continue to be a major issue and may deal a blow to the hopes of a lasting peace.
Following a meeting in neighboring Burkina Faso’s capital of ouagadougou, the separatist groups – the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) – stated that they wanted to hold an emergency meeting of all parties involved in the peace accord in order to assess the implementation of the agreement. In a statement released late on Thursday, Mossa Ag Acharatoumane, a founding member of the MNLA, accused the Malian government of failing to live up to its promises, which were outlined in the agreement that was signed in the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. The statement also indicated that “following multiple difficulties in implementing the Ouagadougou accord, caused notably by the Malian government’s failure to respect its commitments,” the Tuareg and Arab rebel groups “decided to suspend participation in the structures created by the said accord.” The three movements involved in the recent meeting dated the decision from September 18, the date of the second meeting of the joint committee as set under the ceasefire accord.
The central issue for Tuareg groups is the future status of northern Mali, which the Tuareg movements call “Azawad.” The rebels are seeking autonomy, an issue which the central government has been unwilling to discuss. Furthermore, amongst the Tuaregs grievances outlined in the statement are that the Malian government has not yet started prisoner releases which are inline with the Ouagadougou agreement. However observes of the peace deal have noted that Tuareg fighters have increasingly been moving outside of their bases in Kidal, which is in contrast to the accord that stipulates that the separatists would garrison their fighters.
While so far neither the Malian government nor authorities from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali have commented on these latest developments, tensions between Tuareg separatists and the central government in Bamako have been rising has no peace talks have occurred despite Mali’s new President being sworn in and a new government being formed. This decision also risks increasing tensions in a country that continues to be fragile after eighteen months of political instability. Just last week, protesters in Mali’s northern town of Kidal pelted officials from Mali’s newly elected government during a weekend visit to the town.
Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was removed from power by military forces loyal to Captain Amadou Sanogoon on the night of 10 December 2012, a short time before he was due to leave for a scheduled trip to France.
He has since appeared on State television and resigned his position.
With western diplomatic missions all warning against unnecessary travel to Mali, those companies with fixed interests in the country need to take measured precautions if they have not done so already. This is especially an issue for organisations with any interest in the so-called Azawad region – that portion of the country which is under insurgent control. Preparations should include the following:
- Thinning out non-essential staff and dependents
- Restricting expat and local national internal travel
- Seeking advice from the security forces
- Ensuring journey management systems are in place and work
- Reviewing crisis management contingencies and carrying out exercises of these plans
- Registration of expatriates with relevant diplomatic missions and seeking advice on what support will be forthcoming (if any) if conditions deteriorate
- Liaison with insurers to know any exclusions or limits to existing cover
While the situation in Bamako plays out in relation to central government control, the most extreme risks will continue to be in the Azawad region east of Mopti. There is expected to be military clashes there between the various insurgent groupings against the ECOWAS-bolstered Mali army force in line with the UN Security Council authorization to use force. Despite the obvious threats in the Azawad, organisations in Mali should be braced for nuisance attacks and isolated terrorist attacks in the capital of Bamako. When al-Shabaab was weakened in Somalia, these types of attacks were experienced in Uganda and Kenya. Although the two conflicts are not connected, it is logical to predict that similar tactics may evolve and be witnessed in Mali and inside contributing nations. This threat was recently evidenced by the kidnapping of a French citizen in Diema, in the west of the country.