All afternoon and into the evening, Kidal residents hunkered down in their homes, waiting for the clashes raging at their doorsteps to subside.
“They were fighting inside town, next to my house. I could hear the cartridges bouncing off the street. The fighting lasted for hours,” Mohamed Ag Balssaty, a former official reached by phone in the Malian city, said of Thursday's fighting.
The conflict in Mali was supposed to be over. Last year, the northern separatist rebels and the southern government signed a peace agreement that allowed for the fighting factions to be disarmed and reintegrated into the army.
Authorities who fled Kidal when rebels and Islamist militants occupied the city in 2012 would return under a power-sharing agreement with the Platform, loyal to the Bamako government, and the Coordination of Movements of the Azawad or CMA, which currently controls the city.
Mutual mistrust and failure to agree on implementation of the accord has stalled the process.
On Thursday, fighters of the Gatia, an ethnic Tuareg militia that is part of the Platform, arrived at a checkpoint guarded by CMA members just north of the city. It’s still not clear who opened fire. Some reports said the CMA and the HCUA, the High Council for a United Azawad, manning the checkpoint, refused to let the Gatia pass.
CMA spokesperson Almou Ag Mohamed said CMA fighters fired in self-defense: "We were attacked by Gatia fighters, who entered the city on 20 pickups. They opened fire at the CMA checkpoints.”
Four Gatia fighters were reported killed.
Tensions have been building for months between the two armed factions over the management of the city.
Talks in Niamey
Ag Mohamed had just returned from Niger’s capital, Niamey, where the two entities had reached a deal to share administrative responsibilities. All military operations, including securing the town, would include both parties. It was hoped that the new agreement would speed up implementation of the peace accord.
“We made large sacrifices, giving up power in Kidal, the last town under our control," Ag Mohamed said. "They [the Platform] didn't respect this. In my opinion, there is no longer a peace agreement.”
Ag Mohamed said five CMA members were killed in Thursday’s fighting.
Ag Balssaty said civilians were injured, but he would not give any numbers. The local health clinic worked through the night treating wounded.
On Friday, Platform fighters retreated to outside Kidal, although sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the city.
The situation remained tense in Kidal and throughout the region. Deadly skirmishes have continued to erupt across the north since the peace agreement was signed last year. The government has called for a cease-fire.
“No authorities can operate under the current situation of intimidation. I hope the situation will calm down and the parties will allow for the process to continue,” said Mohamed Ag Inhaye, secretary of Mali's peace and reconciliation committee.
Many residents of Kidal say the politics behind the recent bloodshed are confusing and beside the point. They are simply frustrated with a government that they believe has repeatedly failed to secure peace and stability for its people.