Mali slams ‘ethnic cleansing’ by separatist rebels

Malian tuareg soldiers patrol in the streets on February 3, 2013 in Gao.  By Sia Kambou (AFP/File)

Malian tuareg soldiers patrol in the streets on February 3, 2013 in Gao. By Sia Kambou (AFP/File)

BAMAKO (AFP) – Mali’s government on Monday denounced what it described as “ethnic cleansing” against black people in the rebel-held northern city of Kidal and said an army presence there was “non-negotiable”.

Witnesses had complained on Sunday that Tuareg separatists from the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA), who occupy Kidal, had attacked black inhabitants with the intention of “expelling” them from the regional capital.

“An armed group in the Kidal region is conducting ethnic cleansing. The government regrets that fellow countrymen are behaving in this way. When people are targeted because of their colour, that is ethnic cleansing,” government spokesman Manga Dembele told a media conference.

“The government condemns in the strongest terms what we consider to be abuses. If what is said to be happening in Kidal is proved, the perpetrators will be held accountable,” he added, without elaborating on the “abuses” or attributing them to a specific group.

The MNLA has denied targeting black inhabitants but claims it has arrested dozens, including an army officer, in a hunt for “infiltrators” sent by the Malian authorities.

“We are just looking for infiltrators in our area,” said MNLA spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher.

The unrest comes with less than two months to go until a July 28 presidential election seen as essential to restoring democratic rule in the battle-scarred west African nation.

The MNLA rose up to fight for independence for the north in January last year and overwhelmed government troops, leading to a coup which toppled elected president Amadou Toumani Toure.

Together with Al Qaeda-linked militants, they seized key northern cities, but were then chased out by their former Islamist allies.

France sent troops in January to block an advance by the extremists on Bamako and pushed them out of the main cities and into desert and mountain hideouts, allowing the MNLA back into Kidal.

While French troops control the airport and work with the MNLA in Kidal, the separatists have rejected any suggestion that they should allow the Malian military or government into the town.

But Dembele told a media conference the government would make “every effort” to ensure that Malian troops were in Kidal before the elections.

“Military presence is non-negotiable. The army will be in Kidal whatever price,” Dembele told a media conference.