Mali’s leader says the military has seized control of the northern town of Kidal, marking the first time the army has held the Tuareg rebel stronghold in nearly a decade.
It was not immediately possible to independently verify the claim, announced Tuesday on state broadcaster ORTM, as mobile phone networks in Kidal were down.
“This is a message from the president of the transition to the Malian people,” journalist Ibrahim Traore said in his introduction to the news bulletin. “Today, our armed and security forces have seized Kidal. Our mission is not over.”
For several days Mali’s army, accompanied by mercenaries from the Wagner group, have been battling Tuareg fighters in a bid to take control of the town following the departure of United Nations peacekeepers two weeks ago.
Separatist Tuareg rebels in the north have long sought an independent state they call Azawad. In 2012, they dislodged the Malian military from the town, setting into motion a series of events that destabilized the country.
Mutinous soldiers, upset about how the Tuareg rebellion was handled in 2012, later overthrew the country’s democratically elected leader. Amid the chaos, Islamic extremists soon seized control of the major northern towns including Kidal, imposing their strict interpretation of Islamic law known as Shariah.
In 2013, former colonizer France led a military intervention to oust the extremists from power, but they later regrouped and spent the next decade launching attacks on the Malian military and U.N. peacekeepers.
Another military coup in 2020, led by Col. Assimi Goita, resulted in deteriorating relations with Mali’s international partners. Mali’s foreign minister ordered the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA to depart, and forces left Kidal at the beginning of November.