PARIS (AP) — Malian authorities are insisting on a military presence in the troubled northern city of Kidal before the country can hold presidential elections next month, the foreign minister said Tuesday.
"We can't leave Kidal in the hands of armed groups ... so the Malian army must go to Kidal," Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday in Paris.
That tough position makes it more difficult to find a compromise with the Tuareg rebels who are ruling the city. Elections are expected at the end of July.
Kidal is currently controlled by the Tuaregs of the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, who are threatening to go to war if the Malian army tries to return to Kidal, accusing the military of systematically targeting the lighter-skinned ethnic groups in the north.
Coulibaly expressed his "disappointment" after recent reports saying that rebels from the lighter-skinned Tuareg ethnic group attempted to expel Kidal's dark-skinned inhabitants.
"We are facing people who betray our trust and commit warlike acts," he said. "In Kidal, black people are openly attacked. That is new. Before, their racism was latent, a bit creeping, but now it's unashamed."
"We have to make sure that the military protects the people. In accordance with the different resolutions adopted by the U.N., territorial integrity will have to be guaranteed, and the Malian administration — including the army — will have to be present on the entire territory. The army will go to Kidal," he said.
Mali has long been divided along racial and geographic lines between the country's more populated south, where the seat of government is located and which is primarily inhabited by darker-skinned ethnic groups, and its north, the traditional homeland of the lighter-skinned Tuareg people.
The Tuaregs have picked up arms against Mali's government multiple times since 1960 to demand greater rights.
The Malian military has not been back to the city since March 2012, when the NMLA seized the town. Northern Mali was then overrun by a trio of al-Qaida-linked groups which swiftly kicked out the NMLA. When French forces launched a military intervention in January to flush out al-Qaida, the Malian military was able to return to most of the cities in the north — with the exception of Kidal.
Negotiations have started in the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso between the Malian government and the NMLA to find an agreement in order to hold elections.
"That situation in Kidal leads to a lot of concerns and plunges us a bit in doubt concerning the credibility of those with whom we are trying to negotiate," said Coulibaly. In that context, he admitted that any compromise will be difficult to find.
But Coulibaly still "hopes" that the election can be organized in time. "For now, the one missing element is the security," he said.
French troops control the airport of Kidal and cooperate with the NMLA in the city. Philippe Lalliot, spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday that "the elections must take place on the entire territory of Mali."
"It's a question of legitimacy," he said, adding that it would be up to the Malians to organize the vote and figure out how it should take place.