Tensions are mounting in the northern Malian town of Kidal as the government deployed more troops there Monday, after fighting between soldiers and Tuareg MNLA rebels killed at least 36 people during the weekend. Renewed hostilities could affect talks being organized between the rebels and the government.
The Malian government says it is deploying more troops to Kidal to "respond" to separatist MNLA rebels who stormed government buildings there Saturday. Residents told VOA the rebel flag is again flying over the governor's building.
'Declaration of war'
Mali's prime minister said the MNLA's actions are "a flagrant violation" of the cease-fire agreement signed last June and amount to what he said is a "declaration of war."
It remains to be seen whether continued hostilities could derail peace talks delayed from last year.
MNLA spokesman in Kidal, Moussa ag Assarid, told VOA the rebels are "taking note" of the government's declaration, but the MNLA remains "ready and open" for negotiation.
"We are in a situation now in Kidal where each side is holding its position," he said. "There is very little space between the two parties. The population is very worried. But there is a precarious calm at this time."
The government says the MNLA took more than two dozen people hostage, including civil servants and soldiers.
Assarid said they were taken into custody during the fighting for their protection and the MNLA is not demanding anything in exchange for their release.
The MNLA launched its fight for independence in January 2012. Mali won back much of the north a year later, in January 2013, after French and African troops intervened to push out the al-Qaida linked Islamist militants who had taken control.
The MNLA pulled back to Kidal where it continues to circulate freely, despite the presence of French, Malian and U.N. forces.
The attack Saturday coincided with the visit of Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara to Kidal. He met with the governor and local officials amid steady bursts of gunfire outside.
Mara said the situation cannot continue like this. He said the government will resolve this situation either politically in the spirit of reconciliation or "if necessary," he said, "we will do it by force." He said the government is open to dialogue but it will not be "pressured" by armed men in pickup trucks.
During the past year, both sides have accused the other of not living up to the terms of the cease-fire deal.
The Malian government says it will not consider autonomy for the Kidal region.