Malian soldiers fleet to Niger to escape Tuareg attacks


Around a hundred Malian soldiers have fled to neighbouring Niger in an attempt to escape attacks by Toureg rebels fighting for autonomy. More than 15 000 people have fled Mali since the Toureg rebellion began on January 16.

The unarmed soldiers entered Niger through the military post of Chingor following an attack on their barracks at Menaka in northern Mali, the Xinhua news agency reports. The soldiers brought their families with them.

On Saturday, Niger’s National Defence Minister Karidjo Mahamadou visited the Malian soldiers. A Nigerien military source said the visit, “was meant to boost the morale of our Malian brothers, a few hours before they are returned to their country, in company of their families.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that more than 15 000 people, including Malian military personnel, have fled to neighbouring countries since the beginning of the Toureg rebellion. Of these, 10 000 have crossed into Niger, while the remainder fled to Mauritania.

Tuareg nomads have risen up against Mali’s government several times since Mali gained independence from France in 1960. The separatist Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seeks independence for the largely desert northern Mali, and launched its latest rebellion on January 16, breaking a peace that had held since 2009.

They include heavily armed Malian Tuaregs who fought for Libyan’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi. The rebels say they are fighting to secure the independence of Azawad, Mali’s three northern regions, Kidal, Timbuktu and Gau. The government accuses the rebels of atrocities and collaborating with al Qaeda, a charge they reject.

In the past two weeks, the Tuareg group has attacked six towns spread over more than 500 miles across Mali’s vast north. Mali’s Defence Ministry said on Saturday the armed forces had killed about 20 northern separatist rebels and taken a dozen more prisoner during two days of clashes in the Timbuktu region.

The government gave no further details on the clashes but a Malian military source and a local journalist told Reuters that most of the rebels were killed when air force helicopters attacked rebel positions near the town of Niafunke on Saturday.