DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Malian soldiers clashed Wednesday with Tuareg rebels near the Mauritanian border, the first fighting to erupt since the two sides signed a peace accord in June. A Malian captain warned the clash could endanger the truce.
The Tuareg rebels have picked up arms against the African state of Mali three times since independence in 1960, but it was only last year that they succeeded in making significant gains. They were temporarily sidelined by radical jihadists operating in the area, though have grown in strength again since French-led forces largely ousted those Islamic militants last winter.
Both sides gave varying reports on Wednesday's clash, which took place in the central town of Foita.
"One of our patrols happened upon the armed group," said Capt. Modibo Traore of the army's public affairs division in the Malian capital of Bamako, speaking by telephone. "They opened fire on our forces, and three of our men suffered injuries."
"It could throw into question the entire accord. That's the danger here," he added.
The vice president of the rebels, known as the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, said the Malian military attacked them first.
"Our men were preparing to garrison themselves at their base in Foita near the border when they were surprised by the Malian military," said Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, the NMLA's vice president, speaking in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. "We thought they were on patrol. Then early this morning they attacked us with heavy weapons."
"If the army attacks, we will react," he added. "This is a flagrant violation of the accord."
In June, the rebels signed an agreement mediated by the president of Burkina Faso, agreeing to a cease-fire in order to allow Mali's presidential election to go ahead on July 28. The rebels also agreed to garrison their fighters, but the insurgents were frequently spotted outside their assigned bases in the northern province of Kidal.
Talks are to begin later this year between the government of Mali's new leader, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and the NMLA rebels. However, the idea of negotiating with them remains deeply unpopular in southern Mali, as last year's Tuareg uprising marked the beginning of months of turmoil for the sprawling African country.
Helped by al-Qaida's fighters in the region, they swept across northern Mali, seizing a territory the size of France by April 2012. They fell out with their al-Qaida allies in June of last year, and were chased out. Mali's north became a de facto Islamic state until January of this year, when the French forces intervened to help push them out.
While the Islamic extremists have mostly melted into the countryside, the NMLA immediately returned to the province of Kidal, where separatist sentiment remains high.
Ouedraogo contributed to this report from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.