BAMAKO (Reuters) - Tuareg rebels attacked an army camp in northeastern Mali and 17 rebels and 15 soldiers were killed in one of the bloodiest clashes to date in a revolt by the desert insurgents, the government said on Thursday.
Military officers said the scale of the rebel attack late Tuesday and early Wednesday against the garrison at Abebara, 150 km (90 miles) from Kidal, was a worrying escalation of the Tuareg revolt that has hit Mali’s northeast Saharan region.
“They were two, three times more numerous than on previous occasions. We think it’s a coalition of all the rebel bands,” said one officer, who asked not to be named.
He added it was also believed the attackers included nomadic fighters from neighboring Niger, where a Tuareg-led revolt over the last year has killed more than 70 government soldiers, mainly in attacks in Niger’s northern uranium mining zone.
A Malian Defense Ministry statement said an “armed band” had assaulted the Abebara camp, where military sources said a unit of the army’s desert patrol corps was stationed.
Six government soldiers and around 20 rebels were wounded in the fighting, the ministry said.
The heavily-armed attackers had used some 15 Toyota pickup trucks to make their raid, and had also fired on the army camp from surrounding hills, the sources said.
Mali’s government and the rebels, whom the army says are trying to control northern cross-border smuggling routes for arms and drugs, had agreed a Libyan-brokered ceasefire in April.
But the Tuareg insurgents have carried out a number of attacks since the April 3 truce and the Malian army had kept its troops on a war footing in the north because it did not trust the rebel’s pledge to respect the ceasefire.
The Malian Tuareg rebels and the Tuareg-led rebel Niger Justice Movement (MNJ) in neighboring Niger have in the past denied any formal alliance. But Malian and Niger security officials believe they sometimes work together.
“You have two basically distinct rebellions, but there are similarities and cross-overs,” said Jeremy Keenan, a Sahara expert who has researched and written about the Tuaregs. “The situation in both countries is getting worse,” he added.
Fiercely proud of their independence from outsiders, the Tuaregs staged revolts in Mali in the 1960s and 1990s and in Niger in the 1990s for more autonomy from black African-dominated governments in capitals more than 1,000 km (600 miles) away.
Peace agreements after the 1990s rebellions aimed to grant Tuareg communities a greater degree of autonomy while at the same time integrating former fighters into the national army and promoting Tuareg politicians.
But since the start of last year, Tuaregs in Niger and Mali have taken up arms again, motivated by shared resentment against unsolved grievances and what they see as unwarranted interference in their traditional territories by government armies and foreign companies.
Keenan said many of the raids by the Malian rebels were in direct response to operations in the northeast Saharan zone by a Malian government army backed and trained by the United States as part of Washington’s war on terror.
“The last thing the Niger and Mali governments can admit is that there is a genuine political revolt going on,” said Keenan, who is about to publish a new book called “The Dark Sahara: America’s war on terror in Africa”.
Keenan said that rather than conceding political legitimacy to the Tuareg unrest, the Niger and Mali authorities preferred to portray it as falling under a wider campaign to fight terrorism and Islamic extremism in the Sahara, for which their militaries received U.S. training.
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Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher; Writing by Pascal Fletcher