By Jemal Oumar
Reawakened clashes between Touareg rebels and the Malian military last week left dozens dead.
Attacks by militants from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA) began Tuesday in the town of Menaka, near the Nigerien border. The battles expanded over the next few days to the northern towns of Tessalit and Aguelhok. As of Sunday (January 22nd), the Malian government was reportedly back in control of the contested cities.
Government forces claimed 45 rebels were killed along with two Malian troops. The defence ministry employed attack helicopters and light aircraft to repel the Touareg offensive.
“The necessary security and defence measures were taken to ensure the safety and security of citizens in northern Mali regions,” the ministry said. The MNLA, meanwhile, said it had inflicted heavy losses on the Malian army and that the battles were still raging.
These armed clashes come several months after the return of hundreds Touareg gunmen from Libya in the wake of the collapse of Moamer Kadhafi’s regime and following their demands for the independence of northern Mali regions that are inhabited by Touaregs and Arabs.
According to Mauritania’s arayalmostenir.com, the Malian government has begun withdrawing forces along the two countries’ shared border in anticipation of attacks by Touareg rebels massing on the frontier.
However, analyst Abdul Hamid al-Ansari believes the move has exposed border residents to increased risk, “something that made many Touareg and Mauritanian families flee to inland areas of Mauritania, especially the cities of Fassala, Adel Bagrou and Bassiknou”.
“The area is no longer secure. Therefore, we ran for our lives,” said Ham Ag Abdul Qadir, a resident who fled from the Malian village of Leyra. “In addition, al-Qaeda gunmen are now moving in a greater way, especially in areas controlled by Touareg gunmen.”
Mali began dispatching military units to the north on January 14th. At that time, Mali’s Security Minister Sadio Gassama justified the move by telling AFP that the government was holding talks to negotiate the release of al-Qaeda hostages.
The clashes will certainly impact security in neighbouring countries, especially Mauritania with its 500 kilometre-long border with Mali, Abu Bakr al-Ansari, a journalist specialised in Azaouad area affairs, told Magharebia.
He added that the continued clashes could lead to a repeat of the “scenario that the border area residents in both Mauritania and Mali lived in the 1990s when battles forced hundreds of thousands of northern Mali Arab and Touareg residents to move towards nearby cities in neighbouring Mauritania, such as Bassiknou, Fassala and Nema”.
“The influx of displaced people from northern Mali to Mauritania at this time, however, will have very serious consequences as compared to the 1990s,” al-Ansari added. “This is due to two important factors: the presence of al-Qaeda and the risks of drought.”
An influx of refugees to south-eastern Mauritania “will constitute a suitable opportunity for al-Qaeda to penetrate through the area”, according to terrorism expert Bashir Ould Babanah.
The expert suggested terrorists could exploit the security vacuum to enhance their presence in the region. Ould Babanah also noted the risk that Mauritania’s military could be drawn into Mali’s internal conflicts during counter-terror operations.
“The beginnings of security worries as a result of war between Mali and Touareg have already started to spread in Mauritania as evidenced in the dismissal of Mauritania’s security chief,” commented analyst Sid Ahmed Ould Tfeil.
“This means that the Mauritanian regime has to review its security policies to match its desire to face threats posed by al-Qaeda that will undoubtedly increase in view of the war which is raging in northern Mali with Touaregs, and which the terrorists will certainly take advantage of in a smart way,” Ould Tfeil added.
Timbuktu resident Ibrahim Ag Ghoyson told Magharebia that he was worried the clashes could displace people and leave property vulnerable to looting. “Therefore, we hope that the warring parties will reach an immediate solution,” Ag Ghoyson said.
“We also hope that the Malian army will not force the Arab, Touareg and Songhai residents in some northern regions to join the regular army to confront armed Touareg rebels,” he added. “This will lead to a civil war and clashes between cousins and will lead to more tribal wars.”