TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — Malian soldiers retreated Wednesday from the northern town of Kidal after heavy gunbattles with ethnic Tuareg separatists, a major setback for the army less than a year after its highly unpopular return to the rebel stronghold.
Fighting reignited at dawn, according to residents who stayed inside their homes as shooting intensified near the governor's office. The gunfire ended a two-day lull in hostilities following a weekend of violence.
Captain Remi, a spokesman with the French forces who did not give his last name in accordance with French military policy, said the Malian army was seen fleeing the town Wednesday afternoon.
Over the weekend the rebels seized government buildings, killed at least eight civilians and took more than 30 hostages who were later released.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday in a statement he was "deeply concerned by the rapidly deteriorating situation in Kidal."
His spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, described the situation on the ground as "extremely fluid and intense."
After being chased from Kidal in early 2012, Mali's military was allowed to return in July 2013, just before the country's long-awaited presidential election.
The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert, have risen up against the central government in Mali several times since the country's independence from France in 1960. Their quest for autonomy has had repercussions far beyond the land they call the Azawad.
The Malian government's weak response to the Tuaregs' 2012 rebellion inspired mutinous soldiers to launch a coup. The mutineers, who were overwhelmingly from the south, had lost many comrades in the fighting to keep northern towns out of Tuareg control.
The overthrow of the president in 2012 ushered in a power vacuum that allowed al-Qaida-linked militants to hijack the takeover, which had been engineered by moderate rebels. A French-led military intervention in 2013 scattered the Islamic extremists. Tuareg separatists since have retained a strong presence in Kidal despite army efforts to push them out.
Ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs have suffered reprisal killings by government supporters, and concerns mounted Wednesday about the potential for more such violence with the army in retreat. One demonstration earlier this week in support of the Malian army denigrated into protesters attacking Arab- and Tuareg-owned businesses in Kidal.
"Resuming hostilities amid such dangerously elevated ethnic tension carries tremendous risk for civilians and detainees alike," said Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher for West Africa. "The commanders from all sides simply must do all they can to ensure their men respect the laws of war and avoid collective punishment and reprisals."
Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, and Cara Anna at the United Nations, contributed to this report.