BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Black residents of the tense northern Malian city of Kidal say that rebels from the lighter-skinned Tuareg ethnic group, who currently rule the city, are attempting to expel the city's dark-skinned inhabitants.
"This morning, the people of the NMLA read a communique on the radio in Kidal informing us that all blacks that are not known as having been long-term residents of Kidal will be expelled in the direction of Mali, meaning towards Gao, to the south of Kidal," said Ali Cisse, a black resident of the town.
A spokesman for the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, acknowledged that around 200 people had been arrested over the weekend, though he said all but roughly a dozen had been freed as of Monday. Moussa Ag Assarid explained that the NMLA had received a tip indicating that officers in Mali's intelligence services were trying to infiltrate the town, and therefore they are checking the identity of all the townspeople.
"It's not a question of white or black," he said. "It's a matter of our security."
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. Last year after what they said was decades of neglect by the distant central government, the NMLA launched the latest rebellion and seized Mali's northern half. They now control the city of Kidal, which is predominantly Tuareg, though has a sizeable black population.
One black resident of Kidal said that she believed the threat of expulsion is linked to the recent reprisal killings of Tuaregs by Mali's army.
"The people that belong to the NMLA told us that they want us to leave their town because the Malian army is continuing to kill Tuareg civilians in Gossi, in the region of Timbuktu," said Aicha Maiga.
At the same time, a march was planned in Kidal on Monday by supporters of the NMLA. The Malian military has not been back to Kidal since March 2012, when the NMLA seized the town. Northern Mali was soon overrun by a trio of al-Qaida-linked groups which swiftly kicked out the NMLA, and for nearly 10 months, the France-sized territory they controlled became a magnet for jihadists attempting to establish an Islamic state, luring extremists from as far afield as Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Europe. In January, French forces launched a military intervention to flush out al-Qaida, and the Malian military was able to return to most of the cities in the north — with the exception of Kidal.
Soon after French forces ousted the Islamic rebels from Kidal, the NMLA rebels returned, setting up checkpoints and appointing their own Tuareg governor. They are threatening to go to war if the Malian military tries to return to Kidal. At the base of the problem is a longstanding racial dichotomy: The Malian military is made-up of mostly black recruits from the south, and they are accused of carrying out reprisals against the lighter-skinned ethnicities including the Tuaregs in the cities they have recently reconquered, including Timbuktu and Gao.
"This morning, the market of Kidal is closed, and all the boutiques in neighboring districts are shut," said another black resident of Kidal, Nouri Maiga. "The NMLA is inviting everyone to march today in order to say 'no' to Mali's presence in the town of Kidal, and in order to cry out that in Kidal there will be only, 'Azawad,'" he said, using the Tamasheq word referring to northern Mali, the area that the Tuareg's consider as their birthright and traditional homeland.
Ag Assarid, a Paris-based spokesman for the NMLA, said that the NMLA is looking for suspects who have infiltrated the town. He acknowledged that arrests had taken place.
"The NMLA is not in the business of carrying out an ethnic war. We do not talk of black or white skin. This isn't true," he said by telephone from Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, where he and other NMLA leaders were meeting for negotiations with the Malian government. "What is true is that we learned that Mali's security apparatus is trying to infiltrate Kidal ... we need to secure the city of Kidal, and so we have detained and interrogated people that residents of Kidal who we know are not normal residents, and who don't have a valid reason for being there. And the majority were freed. ... It's not a question of skin color," he said.
The French Foreign Ministry condemned the violence on Monday, and demanded that those who were arrested be freed.
"We call on all parties to show restraint and respect for human rights," it said.
The recent events further complicate Mali's plan of holding presidential elections on July 28. It's unclear how the vote will be organized in Kidal if the NMLA does not allow the Malian administration to return.
Over the weekend in the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, the NMLA handed mediators a proposal for an agreement which they would like to discuss with the Malian government. Country watchers expect that they will ask for some level of regional autonomy in return for agreeing to hold the elections.
Associated Press Writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.