Mali fights rebels in north as army officers protest in south

BAMAKO Mon Sep 30, 2013 5:59pm EDT

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BAMAKO (Reuters) - Tuareg rebels battled soldiers in northern Mali for a second day and disgruntled army officers staged an unruly protest at a southern military base on Monday, underscoring the dual challenge facing the new government.

In the center of the remote northern town of Kidal, MNLA Tuareg separatists traded fire with soldiers early on Monday before an uneasy calm returned. The fighting began on Sunday night, with both sides accusing the other of firing first.

In the southern garrison town of Kati, close to the capital Bamako, officers who participated in a March 2012 military coup fired into the air in protest at not receiving promotions they said had been promised.

Their former leader Amadou Sanogo was promoted from captain to a four-star general by a transitional government, in what diplomats said was an effort to encourage him to retire.

Around 30 officers went to the headquarters of Sanogo's Committee for Reform of the Armed Forces, fired into the air and took Sanogo's chief of staff away, according to one military source. The officers did not say what they intended to do with their "hostage", the source said, requesting anonymity.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, elected on August 11 with a pledge to reunite Mali after the coup, faces the dual task of reforming the ill-disciplined armed forces and ending a cycle of Tuareg rebellions in the north.

The coup, triggered by the government's failure to tackle a Tuareg uprising, ushered in an Islamist occupation of northern Mali which only ended when France launched a massive operation in January that killed hundreds of al Qaeda-linked fighters.

The resurgence in violence now threatens to derail peace efforts and complicate France's plan to reduce its presence in the West African country to just 1,000 troops by year-end.

The MNLA suspended its participation in the peace process on Thursday, accusing Keita of failing to honor a June ceasefire accord, after sporadic fighting in recent weeks.

Mali's new government said late on Monday that it remained committed to the deal, which calls for the opening of talks on greater autonomy for the north within two months of the Cabinet taking office.

However, it warned it was prepared to counter lingering security threats.

"The government will relentlessly pursue the fight against terrorism, organized crime and residual banditry. To this end, the security and defense forces will fully play their role," the government said in a statement.

AL QAEDA CLAIMS TIMBUKTU ATTACK

The clashes in Kidal followed a suicide car bomb attack near an army camp in the northern town of Timbuktu on Saturday in which the two attackers and at least two civilians were killed.

In a statement to Mauritania's Alakhbar news website, which has contacts with militant groups, a spokesman for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - the organization's north African wing - claimed responsibility for the attack.

The increase in violence poses a challenge for a U.N. peacekeeping force, whose deployment is being hobbled by lack of aircraft and troop commitments from members.

In Kidal, a resident who asked not to be identified said that fighters loyal to local chieftain Iyad ag Ghali had entered the town overnight. A military official, who also asked not to be identified, confirmed this.

Ag Ghali founded Islamist group Ansar Dine, one of three armed Muslim militant factions that seized control of the northern two-thirds of Mali last year. Ag Ghali's whereabouts has remained unclear since France launched its operation.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra; Writing by Daniel Flynn and Joe Bavier; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Robin Pomeroy and Paul Simao)

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