More than 200 Malian troops reached the northern city Kidal on Thursday, the army said, the military’s first permanent deployment there since being chased out by Tuareg separatist rebels in 2014.
Photos shared by the UN peacekeeping mission showed state governor Sidi Mohamed Ag Ichrach welcoming the army convoy to Kidal, epicentre of repeated rebellions by semi-nomadic Tuaregs seeking an independent state called Azawad.
It marks a symbolic victory for government efforts to restore state authority in northern Mali and implement a 2015 peace deal with the rebels promising greater local autonomy in exchange for the return of state forces.
“I confirm the army arrived in Kidal. They got there without any problem,” army spokesman Diarran Kone said.
A detachment of 240 soldiers – a third each drawn from existing army ranks, former separatist rebels and pro-government militiamen – set out by road from Gao on Monday.
In a sign of the precarious security situation, peacekeepers and helicopters from the UN mission in Mali were deployed to accompany the convoy, while the foreign minister tweeted “all Mali is holding its breath”.
The most recent Tuareg insurrection, in 2012, led to the takeover of Mali’s desert north by rebels and loosely aligned Islamist militants, before French forces intervened to beat back the jihadists.
Large swathes of the desert north remain beyond government control. Malian forces were forced to flee Kidal in 2014 after gun battles during a visit by the prime minister, killing 50 soldiers.
Squabbling slowed implementation of the 2015 deal. The political upheaval complicated Western-backed efforts to combat jihadists linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, who stepped up attacks in Mali and neighbouring countries.
In all, 428 soldiers will be deployed across Kidal region, officials say and the army presence should be progressively extended to other parts of the north, where state authority is weak.
“We worked a lot to arrive at this result,” said Almou Ag Mohamed, the spokesman for the CMA separatist coalition. “We are talking about Kidal but the deployment of this army has to be done in Timbuktu, Gao and Menaka.”
Ibrahim Maiga, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) think-tank, said the army’s return to Kidal was symbolic but its true import remained to be seen.
“I think this is above all a test of good faith,” said Maiga. “I see it more as a test than a turning point or decisive step.”