Mali sent troops on Monday to retake the rebel stronghold of Kidal after Tuareg separatists seized local government offices, taking 28 hostages and engaging the army in a firefight in which eight soldiers and dozens of rebels died.
The fighting was sparked by Prime Minister Moussa Mara's visit to the desert town 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako. He was making his first trip to the north since his appointment.
There has been violence in the town since rebels of the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MLNA) attacked a government building in Kidal on Friday and Saturday. They were angry that the administration had not kept its promise to negotiate with them over the future of the region.
The sound of machine guns was heard in the town on Monday morning, even as the United Nations tried to broker a truce between the army and the rebels. Major General Jean Bosco Kazura, military head of the UN mission to Mali, MINUSMA, had arrived Sunday afternoon in Kidal to lead the negotiations, the UN said.
The MNLA said they killed 14 soldiers and captured four local government officials as well as 24 soldiers. The men were being held as "prisoners" because the government had failed to negotiate with the MNLA, the group's spokesman, Moussa Ag Assarid said. "Among government's commitments was the release of our prisoners. But instead of releasing them, they continue to arrest more and more Tuaregs, mostly civilian shepherds and others," he added.
French President Francois Hollande called for the "immediate and unconditional release of Kidal's administrator and the hostages," during telephone talks with his Malian counterpart Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Monday. Hollande called "for light to be shed on the murders and the unacceptable violence committed during the visit of the Malian prime minister to Kidal."
The MNLA launched the latest of a series of insurgencies in January 2012. A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 contained most of the violence but Tuareg demands for autonomy have continued.
jm/dr (AFP, dpa)