Mali’s army drove closer on Saturday to the town of Kidal clashing with Tuareg separatist and rebel groups in what could signal the start of fighting for the strategically important northern crossroads.
Since seizing power in a coup in 2020 the African country’s military rulers have made a priority of re-establishing sovereignty over all regions and Kidal could become a key battleground.
Military, political and rebel sources all reported the clashes.
But details such as a casualty toll or tactics involved could not be confirmed independently in the remote region.
The rebels in Kidal cut telephone links on Friday in anticipation of an army offensive following several days of airstrikes.
The Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP), an alliance of predominantly Tuareg armed groups said it had been involved in “vigorous combat” against a convoy of army soldiers and mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner group.
The CSP post on social media said “considerable losses” had been inflicted on the convoy which had retreated.
However, the army said on social media networks that it had “broken the defensive line” set up by the rebels near Kidal, and assured that it was continuing its advance, which “will be carried out successfully”.
Earlier, an army officer told AFP: “We are a few dozen kilometres (miles) from Kidal.
“We are continuing our progress to secure the whole territory,” he said, on condition of anonymity.
Two local elected representatives, also speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the topic, said there was fighting near Kidal.