May 24, 2006

Mali desert rebels pull back after seizing weapons

By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Tuareg rebels withdrew to hills around a
remote desert town in northern Mali on Wednesday after looting
army camps there and seizing weapons as government
reinforcements advanced to try to secure the area.

Tuesday's surprise attack on Kidal, more than 1,000 km (600
miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, raised fears of a new
offensive by the Tuaregs, light-skinned nomads clad in
indigo-blue turbans who staged revolts from the town in the
1960s and early 1990s.

The rebels briefly occupied the center of Kidal, which lies
on an ancient desert trading route linking North and
Sub-Saharan Africa, but later pulled back to surrounding hills
with looted arms, vehicles and electronic equipment.

"We can't say that Kidal is totally liberated," said
Nouhoum Togo, spokesman for Mali's Defense Ministry in Bamako,
adding that government troops sent from the towns of Gao, Mopti
and from the capital were nearing Kidal.

"What we can say is that the town is very calm, there is no
more shooting to be heard, the rebels left their positions this
morning and released 20 prisoners they had taken ... Our
mission is to liberate Kidal by whatever means," he said.

Initially backed by Libya, the Tuaregs -- who have worked
the trans-Saharan caravan routes for hundreds of years -- took
up arms in 1990 in Mali and neighboring Niger demanding greater

A peace deal nominally ended the Mali revolt two years
later but was never fully implemented.

Some Tuaregs were integrated into the national army but
sporadic unrest and banditry has continued among former
fighters who still feel economically marginalized in a region
awash with arms and largely beyond central government control.

A senior military source said there had been exchanges of
fire overnight in Kidal when the rebels tried to attack a
company of the National Guard where government soldiers had
taken refuge, burning some vehicles and stealing others.

"Finally they withdrew to the hills. They took everything
-- weapons, electronic equipment, vehicles," the source said.

The attackers, believed to be led by a high-ranking Tuareg
deserter from the national army, used pickup trucks mounted
with machineguns in the assault on Kidal and also raided an
army camp in Menaka, a town 300 km (180 miles) to the

The Tuaregs have in the past used the threat of rebellion
to win a greater measure of political power. Analysts said it
was unclear whether the latest attacks were meant as another
warning shot to the government or the start of a new revolt.

President Amadou Toumani Toure has called for calm and
urged people not to confuse Tuareg rebels with Tuareg
civilians, an apparent bid to avoid ethnic unrest in the West
African nation.