BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The Malian military entered the northern city of Kidal on Friday afternoon, returning for the first time since they were chased out 16 months ago by a Tuareg separatist group, and later by an army of al-Qaida-linked fighters.
"It was around 5 p.m. that the soldiers entered Kidal and penetrated Camp 1 inside the city. The Malian military was accompanied by the French military, just as they were when our soldiers entered Timbuktu and Gao," said Lt. Col. Souleymane Maiga, the director of information and public relations for the Malian military.
The return of the Malian forces was confirmed by Kidal's deputy mayor.
Kidal, like the rest of northern Mali, fell to a mixture of rebel groups in March of 2012. It remained in rebel hands during the past six months, even after French forces launched a military intervention to free northern Mali from the fighters, succeeding in liberating all of the other major towns.
Tuareg rebels re-entered Kidal in February and March of this year, erecting roadblocks, levying taxes and creating a de facto Tuareg state.
After intense international wrangling, the Tuareg groups controlling Kidal signed an agreement last month, which paved the way for the return of Mali's military on Friday. Their return still comes as a surprise though, with many worried that the Tuareg separatists would not accept the army inside Kidal's city limits. It removes one of the major obstacles to an upcoming presidential election, scheduled to take place in just three weeks.
"The Malian army arrived in Kidal," said Deputy Mayor Abda Ag Kazina. "There were two demonstrations — one was to support the army. The other was to prevent the army from returning. There were shots fired in the air and the protesters dispersed," he said.
Mali's north and south could easily be two different countries — inhabited by radically different ethnic groups. Kidal is home predominantly to Tuareg and Arab ethnic groups, both lighter skinned than the sub-Saharan ethnic groups common in the south, where the capital and the seat of power is located.
The army is overwhelmingly made-up of soldiers from southern ethnicities, and they are accused of carrying out reprisal killings against Arab and Tuareg civilians in the other northern towns they recently retook, especially Timbuktu, where reporters discovered the shallow graves of civilians executed by the military this January.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.