BAMAKO (Reuters) - The Malian government on Monday accused Tuareg separatist rebels of violence against non-Tuaregs in the northeastern town of Kidal and said the army would retake it before a presidential election in July.
Tension over Kidal risk turning public opinion against France, which was feted for liberating Mali's north from nine months of Islamist occupation in February but has come under criticism for allowing the MNLA Tuareg rebels to retain their grip on the desert town.
Mali's interim government says it must reimpose its authority across its national territory before the July 30 election, which is meant to conclude a transition to democracy following a military coup in April 2012.
A government spokesman said it had received reports that armed groups in Kidal appeared to be carrying out a racial purge, including expelling non-Tuareg residents to the northern town of Gao.
"When people are targeted because of their colour and are persecuted...if it is proved to be true, we call that racial purification," Manga Dembele told a news conference in Bamako.
"The government will do everything possible to make sure the Malian army is in Kidal soon before the elections. The presence of the Malian army in Kidal is not negotiable," Dembele said.
Malian army spokesman Colonel Souleymane Maiga said on Sunday the attacks mostly targeted the black Songhai, Peul and Bella ethnic groups. Some were seized and accused of being spies for the Malian army, he said.
A resident of Kidal who requested not to be identified told Reuters on Sunday that armed MNLA fighters were roaming the town, warning people from the south to leave.
"The shops are closed. We are ready to leave for Gao when calm returns," the resident said by telephone.
France condemned the attacks on Monday, saying it had received reports of targeted violence and arrests based on skin colour.
"France condemns this violence and extra-judicial arrests and is calling for the release of the persons concerned," a French government statement said.
A Paris-based spokesman in charge of human rights for the MNLA denied the detentions were based on race. He said the government was trying to inflame the situation by using what he described as dangerous language.
"We arrested about 10 people who we have identified as Malian soldiers sent to spy on us," said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane. "They are considered prisoners of war and are being interrogated. Civilians who were picked up during the sweep have been released."
The MNLA has rejected Bamako's calls for it to lay down its weapons, saying it would resist any attempt to retake Kidal. It has said it is open to talks with the government if northern Mali's right to self-determination was recognised.
(Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Angus MacSwan)