BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Tuareg separatists who drove the Malian military out of Kidal 16 months ago protested Saturday against the army’s return to the northern town, gathering outside the camp where soldiers are staying.
The demonstration came hours after a U.N. peacekeeper was lightly wounded in an attack on a checkpoint at 2 a.m., said Olivier Salgado, spokesman for MINUSMA, the new U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali that began earlier this month.
The West African country’s army is overwhelmingly made-up of soldiers from southern Malian ethnicities, and they are accused of carrying out reprisal killings against Arab and Tuareg civilians in the other northern towns they retook earlier this year.
“We are demanding that the Malian military leave the city. We don’t want them here,” said Mohamed Cisse, a young resident of Kidal who was in front of the military camp in Kidal on Saturday.
The military’s presence in Kidal removes one of the major obstacles to the presidential election, scheduled to take place in just three weeks. Many had wondered how the country could hold a national election with an important provincial capital in the hands of rebels.
In preparation for the campaigning, Mali’s government on Saturday also lifted the state of emergency that had been put into place back in January after al-Qaida-linked militants began attacking towns further south in the country.
Many though, fear that the Tuareg separatists will not accept the army’s presence, a concern underscored by Saturday’s demonstration.
“The young people are going out in the town and urging people to protest against the arrival of the army,” resident Aicha Maiga told The Associated Press. “The market is closed today and people who don’t want to demonstrate are staying at home.”
Kidal, like the rest of northern Mali, fell to a mixture of rebel groups in March 2012. It had remained in rebel hands over the past six months, even after French forces launched a military intervention to free northern Mali from the fighters, succeeding in liberating all of the other major towns.
Tuareg rebels re-entered Kidal in February and March of this year, erecting roadblocks, levying taxes and creating a de facto Tuareg state.
After intense international wrangling, the Tuareg groups controlling Kidal signed an agreement last month, which paved the way for the return of Mali’s military on Friday. However, some Tuaregs remain committed to seeking an independent state and disagreed with the accord that allowed the soldiers to come back.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.