BAMAKO The United States warned on Monday that northern Mali risked sliding back into war and called for the government and Tuareg separatists to return to talks after deadly clashes in a traditional rebel stronghold at the weekend.
The Malian army was preparing to launch an assault on the northern town of Kidal, where at least eight soldiers and eight civilians including six government officials were killed when rebels attacked the regional governor's office on Saturday while Prime Minister Moussa Mara was in the town.
Around 30 civil servants who were taken hostage in the attack were released on Monday, according to Radhia Achouri, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was due to address the nation on Monday evening, after Mara said on Sunday that Keita was now convinced it was "highly desirable ... that Kidal be totally under the control of the Malian state".
"The rebels and the army are reinforcing their positions," an elected official in Kidal, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told Reuters. "I'm shut up in my house. The next hours will be decisive."
Mali's international partners have been pushing for a final, negotiated settlement to a long cycle of Tuareg independence uprisings since al Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked a Tuareg rebellion in 2012 and seized northern Mali.
After a French-led intervention drove the Islamists from major cities and towns last year, Mali's government and separatist groups signed a deal in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou to hold talks about greater autonomy for the north.
But the lines between the independence fighters and their erstwhile Islamist allies remain blurred, and efforts to get government and separatists to sit down together have struggled.
"We are very concerned about what happened, and that the response might lead to this region going back into conflict," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield told journalists in Paris on Monday.
"It is important for the government to continue to talk to them (the rebels) and work on a reconciliation that will bring them back into the fold."
Kidal is the stronghold of the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and, while the rebels now claim to control the town, they said they had only fought back after coming under attack by the Malian army.
Attaye Ag Mohamed, a spokesman for the group based in Kidal, denied government accusations that the MNLA had renewed its previous alliance with armed Islamist groups.
"They can say what they want. They're just trying to dupe the Malian people," Ag Mohamed told Reuters.
MINUSMA urged both sides to refrain from violence that could endanger civilians. The force is not yet at its full strength of 13,000 and, while it was present in Kidal on Saturday, it was unable to stop the fighting.
France, which led an offensive against armed Islamist groups but pressed Bamako to negotiate with the northern separatists, said it would stay out of any fighting between the army and the Tuareg rebels.
"We are not there to intervene with regard to tensions between Malians," French army spokesman Colonel Gilles Jaron said. "We are 1,600 (soldiers) in Mali now and their role is to fight armed terrorist groups."
France is seeking to reduce its numbers in Mali to around 1,000 while redeploying soldiers elsewhere in the region to tackle the rising threat of Islamic militant groups that have spread across West Africa since last year's intervention.
"This is a real turning point in the crisis," said Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa programs director for the conflict prevention think tank International Crisis Group.
"It's clearly the end of the Ouagadougou agreement and the situation is as it was at the beginning of the crisis."
(Additional reporting by John Irish and Marine Pennetier in Paris, Emma Farge in Dakar, Adama Diarra in Gao, and Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Writing by Joe Bavier and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)