DAKAR, SENEGAL — Heavy fighting broke out Wednesday between the Malian army and the Tuareg separatist group MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) near the northern town of Anefis, which is 100 kilometers from the MNLA stronghold of Kidal.
The clashes mark the first fighting between the two sides in more than a year and could derail attempts to find a negotiated solution to the crisis ahead of nationwide elections July 28.
A military spokesman in the capital, Bamako, said the army has seized Anefis and is preparing for an assault on Kidal, 100 kilometers to the north.
Ten rebels were killed in the fighting and 28 were taken as prisoners, according to Army Commander Colonel Didier Dacko.
MNLA spokesman Moussa ag Attaher said the rebels are regrouping outside Anefis and preparing a counterattack.
Early Wednesday, the Malian army attacked their advanced positions in Anefis with heavy weapons, he said, explaining that the MNLA left the town to evacuate civilians and take the fight away from the town. The spokesman said the rebels are regrouping at less than five kilometers from the Malian army positions and warned that fresh combat is imminent.
Residents of Kidal told VOA that the streets are deserted and MNLA fighters there have taken positions outside the city.
Kidal is the only major northern town not to return to Malian army control since French forces arrived in January and led the drive that drove Islamist militants out of northern Mali's towns and cities. Mali's interim government says the army must retake Kidal before nationwide elections planned for July 28. The MNLA has refused to disarm before negotiations or let the Malian army enter the city.
The Malian military offensive comes just two days after the interim government condemned arrests and expulsions of dark-skinned Kidal residents by the MNLA.
Residents of the town told VOA approximately 200 Songhoy and other dark-skinned residents were detained because they refused to take part in a protest against the Malian army.
The MNLA said in a statement that it had arrested 180 people on suspicion of being spies for the Malian army, but that only 20 were detained. Mali's foreign minister Tieman Coulibaly condemned what he called "racist" acts and said Tuesday that the army would head to Kidal.
Coulibaly said to arrest hundreds of Malian citizens because they are black and ask them to go back to their country when in fact they are already in their country is extremely serious. He added that Mali will do the maximum that the U.N. resolutions allow, including to restore the territorial integrity of the country.
The MNLA has said that an attempt to retake Kidal will be a declaration of war.
The MNLA launched its fight for northern independence in January 2012, triggering a nationwide crisis. Disgruntled soldiers overthrew Mali's central government in March 2012 and the northern half of the country fell under the control of al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants for ten months.