BAMAKO — Pro-government militias in northern Mali refused yesterday to pull out of a town they occupied last week, as renewed tensions with Tuareg rebels threatened to torpedo a crucial peace deal in the restive region.
The Platform coalition of loyalist fighters seized the town of Anefis, about 120 kilometres south of the northern city of Kidal in deadly clashes last Monday that left at least 10 dead, according to a source with MINUSMA, the UN mission in the country.
The outbreak of violence prompted the Tuareg rebels to pull out of an international committee set up to monitor a peace accord which they reluctantly signed in June with the pro-government militants after lengthy negotiations.
"We have just met with international mediators. They want us to leave the town of Anefis without conditions. We refuse categorically," said Habala Ag Amzata, deputy secretary general of GATIA, one of the armed groups that make up Platform.
The group had earlier released a statement agreeing "in principle" to leave the town if Malian and international troops were deployed there to protect locals.
Meanwhile an African military source with MINUSMA said the situation on the ground in northern Mali was "tense."
"In Anefis, Platform armed groups have reinforced their military presence and in Kidal the rebels have done the same."
A regional security source warned of "the risk of the rapid deterioration of the situation on the ground."
Mediators have demanded the warring parties return to "strict compliance" with the peace deal, seen as crucial to returning stability to the north which has experienced several uprisings in past decades by Tuareg populations who feel marginalised by government in the distant south.
The pro-government forces, which claim to recognise the territorial integrity of Mali, formed to "defend the interests" of their communities against Tuareg separatists, according to GATIA chief, Fahad Ag Almahmoud.
After the latest rebellion in 2012, Mali was shaken by a coup that cleared the way for Tuareg separatists to seize towns and cities across the vast northern desert.
Al-Qaeda-linked militants then overpowered the Tuareg, taking control of the region for nearly 10 months where they unleashed a brutal form of sharia law and destroyed ancient monuments, until they were ousted in a French-led military offensive.
However Bamako has yet to gain full control of the north which is overrun with competing armed groups and remains threatened by a jihadist insurgency. — AFP