Two years after a military coup deposed its government, it looks as though the West African nation of Mali, known for its world-class music festivals and the fabled ruins of Timbuktu, is on the brink of becoming a failed state.
On Saturday, Tuareg separatists attacked government buildings in the rebel stronghold of Kidal, a town in northeastern Mali.
The assault coincided with a visit from the country’s recently appointed prime minister, Moussa Mara, who had traveled to the fractious region for the first time to rekindle peace talks with separatists and re-establish the central government’s presence.
Clashes between members of the army escorting Mara and militants with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg separatist group, took place at the regional governor’s offices, where Mara was speaking with officials. The rebels seized the building shortly after Mara was moved to a nearby army camp for the night.
The Ministry of Defense reported that at least eight government soldiers and 28 militants were killed and a total of 87 people wounded. A state media report claimed that the MNLA was “supported by terrorist groups.” The militants took some 30 civil servants hostage.
The Malian government called the attack “unspeakable and cowardly” and a “declaration of war,” and sent additional troops to Kidal to help secure the area. French and US officials condemned the attack, and the Economic Community of West African States lamented the “serious deterioration of the political and security situation” in Mali.
In a televised address to the nation on Monday, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita promised those behind the killings and taking of hostages would face justice before national and international courts.
The UN reported late Monday afternoon that the rebels had freed the hostages, but the circumstances of their release and their precise number was not immediately clear. The MNLA’s website offered a statement announcing that they were liberated “in response to urgent appeals from the international community” and as a “sign of our goodwill.”
The rebels claimed that they had acted in self-defense. Ahead of Mara's visit, they said, Malian soldiers had fired on anti-government protesters demonstrating against the coming delegation.
“The day before the arrival of the prime minister, Malian soldiers already present in Kidal fired live bullets… on civilians protesting peacefully,” the MNLA said in a statement.
The Tuaregs — nomadic Berbers who are often pictured on horseback wearing traditional indigo robes and veils — are fighting for independence of Mali’s northern region, which they call Azawad.
They have herded cattle across Saharan deserts for centuries, and have fought for their own state since the end of the colonial era. (Interestingly, Tuareg men, but not women, cover their faces in a veil — and sometimes play really good rock music).
Unlike Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency, the Tuareg rebels are not ideological extremists — although they did align themselves for a short time with Islamist group Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda affiliate, before the two groups turned on one another.
In early 2012, the MNLA launched an offensive against the Malian government, which was the latest of several in Mali’s history. Members of the military distrusted President Amadou Toumani Touré s leadership and wanted him to do more to stop the Tuareg rebellion.
They carried out a coup d’etat in the capital of Bamako, and the country fell into chaos: Touré was ousted and the insurgency consolidated control of northern Mali. Separatists declared Azawad an independent state, though it was not recognized elsewhere.
The separatists withdrew their claim of independence in February, 2013, and the government signed an accord with the Tuareg group the following June that allowed the military to return to rebel-held areas.
But last weekend’s events signify that peace is deteriorating with both groups pointing the finger, and each claiming they are committed to peace.
“Either we believe that Mali is one and indivisible… or we decide that Mali is one and indivisible, except for Kidal, you tell us,” Keita said in his speech Monday.