BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali’s U.N. peacekeeping mission deployed troops around a northern separatist stronghold on Tuesday, seeking to prevent an escalation of clashes between rebels and pro-government militias that threaten to torpedo a June peace accord.
The mainly Tuareg secessionist Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and pro-Bamako Platform militias have both signed onto the deal, which aims to pacify the north and allow the Malian army to focus on tackling Islamist militants.
“These acts constitute a flagrant violation of the ceasefire and the peace accord,” the U.N. mission, MINUSMA, said in a statement.
The two sides have traded blame for starting the violence which has centred on a road axis in the northern Kidal region.
On Monday, Platform fighters seized the town of Anefis from the CMA raising fears that they would then advance on the town of Kidal, the region’s largest population centre and the CMA’s main stronghold.
MINUSMA called on both sides to immediately return to the positions they occupied on Aug. 15, and said it was putting in place a security zone extending 20 km (12 miles) around Kidal to prevent an expansion of the violence and protect civilians.
“In the case of a violation of this security zone by Platform elements or those affiliated with the Platform, MINUSMA will react in accordance with its mandate,” the mission said.
There are over 9,000 UN peacekeepers in Mali, 90 percent of them in the north. The U.N. force did not specify how many troops were deployed around the stronghold.
No clashes were reported on Tuesday. A Reuters witness inside Kidal said CMA fighters were reinforcing positions around the town and deploying heavy weapons against a possible attack.
Neighbouring Niger was due to begin hosting talks on Wednesday to ease tensions between the two sides.
“The stakeholders must sit down around the table and get off on the right foot again,” said Malian government spokesman Choguel Kokalla Maiga.
However, he said Mali had asked the African Union and the United Nations to investigate the ceasefire violations. MINUSMA on Monday threatened to apply targeted sanctions against those found to be behind the violence.
The West African nation is seeking to break a decades-long cycle of Tuareg uprisings, the most recent of which allowed Islamist groups, some linked to al Qaeda, to seize the desert north in 2012.
A French-led intervention a year later scattered the Islamists but failed to eradicate them, and Islamist violence is once more on the rise and expanding further south.