Malian special forces advanced towards the rebel-held town of Kidal on Thursday on a scouting mission ahead of a possible assault on the last stronghold of the Tuareg separatist MNLA, a day before peace talks were due to begin.
Government troops captured a village about 100 km (60 miles) south of Kidal on Wednesday after heavy fighting, the first clashes with the rebels since France led a military offensive in January to drive out Islamists militants from northern Mali.
The French campaign broke a 10-month occupation of northern Mali by al-Qaida-linked groups, but left Kidal under the control of the MNLA in a further hurdle to government efforts to unify the west African country.
Army spokesman Colonel Souleymane Maiga said that Malian forces were consolidating their positions around the village of Anefis while preparing to advance on Kidal.
Military sources said on Wednesday that Malian troops had, by nightfall, advanced to the village of Amessine, 37 km (23 miles) from Kidal, and reinforcements were being sent north from the towns of Gao and Menaka.
“Special forces are on a reconnaissance mission in the area around Kidal,” Maiga said. “We have been informed that MNLA fighters are trying to use the non-Tuareg population as human shields to block our entrance into the town.”
The Malian army has promised to retake the town before the presidential election scheduled for July 28. The MNLA seized it when Islamist fighters fled French forces.
The West African state's interim government has accused the MNLA of arresting and carrying out ethnic violence against black Songhai, Bella and Bambara people in Kidal, expelling some of them from the town.
The United States on Wednesday condemned “racially motivated acts of detention and expulsions in Kidal” and called for a negotiated solution that would return Mali's civilian administration to the area.
Amnesty International said on Thursday that serious human rights abuses were taking place in Mali, despite the presence of around 3,500 French troops there. Amnesty pointed the finger at the Malian army, the MNLA and the Islamist MUJWA.
The MNLA has rejected Bamako's calls for it to lay down its weapons and said it will resist any attempt to retake Kidal. It has said it is open to negotiations if northern Mali's right to self-determination is recognized.
Both parties are due to meet from Friday in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou for talks. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the talks were due to be concluded by June 10.
Mali's chief negotiator told a news conference in Bamako he was confident of reaching a deal to allow July's elections to proceed across the country, including Kidal.
“These conditions mean the return of the Malian state throughout the country including the administration, technical services and also the army and security services,” Tiebile Drame said. "I feel a consensus is emerging and I am optimistic about the signing of an agreement on June 10 in Ouagadougou.”