UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Mali's foreign minister urged the U.N. Security Council at an emergency meeting Tuesday to demand that all armed groups in the volatile West African nation lay down their weapons, especially separatist Tuareg rebels who launched a deadly attack over the weekend in the northern town of Kidal.
Abdoulaye Diop also urged the council to approve "a much more robust mandate" for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali. It is authorized to help restore peace, especially in northern cities, but not to undertake offensive military operations or chase terrorists in the desert.
A 2012 coup plunged Mali into chaos that allowed secular Tuareg rebels to take over half of the country's north as a new homeland. Months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamic jihadists, many linked to al-Qaida fighters. When the Islamists started moving into government-controlled areas in the south, France launched a military offensive that routed the rebels though remnants remain.
Diop and U.N. envoy Albert Koenders addressed the emergency council meeting by videoconference from the capital, Bamako, on the rebel attack which coincided with a visit to Kidal on Saturday by Mali's new Prime Minister Moussa Mara.
The rebels stormed government buildings, killed eight civilians and eight soldiers, and took 32 hostages who were freed on Monday. Koenders said two U.N. peacekeepers and 21 international police officers with the U.N. force were injured while supporting Malian security forces during and after the prime minister's visit.
"The priority today is to pull Kidal back from the brink of renewed confrontation ... (and) prevent northern Mali from slipping into a spiral of violence that ... could destabilize the entire region," Koenders said.
He said the Tuareg rebels must hand over government buildings still under their control in Kidal, heavy weapons must be secured, and the government must proceed without delay with political talks aimed at restoring peace.
Diop told the council that "everything was in place to relaunch the talks to lead to a definitive peace" when the rebels "chose to declare war on the state of Mali" by attacking its forces and government offices.
The prime minister — visiting the north for the first time with 10 ministers — was warmly welcomed in the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu but his delegation was "unfortunately received in Kidal with bullets and heavy weapons fired by armed groups in collusion with international terrorism," Diop said.
Ambassador Gerard Araud of France, which called the emergency meeting, said French troops evacuated the prime minister and his delegation from Mali.
Diop held up a picture of a woman — a regional government official slain by the rebels — and said: "This is a crime against humanity and your council should take strong action in order to stop impunity and atrocity."
He called for an international commission to be established "to verify the facts so that those responsible be brought to justice nationally and internationally."
At the same time, Diop said the government remains ready "to open a sincere dialogue which would lead to a definitive and comprehensive peace agreement."
The Security Council later strongly condemned the violent clashes, the building seizures and hostage-taking by Tuareg rebels in Kidal. It demanded "the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of armed groups" from the buildings, insisted that those responsible for the violence be identified and held accountable, and called on all parties to refrain from any further violence.
The council called for a speedy resumption of the process of securing heavy weapons and of peace talks between the government and armed groups.