BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — About 40 residents of the troubled northern Mali town of Kidal on Wednesday protested the plan for Tuareg rebels to hand back to the government control of an administrative building and a radio station.
The handover of the buildings was intended to strengthen the Mali government's control of Kidal, but the protests as well as the presence of armed Tuareg rebels have fueled fears among officials and residents of continued insecurity in the city. The fears have been compounded by suspicion that Islamic extremists have returned.
Tuareg leaders in June signed an accord with the Malian government agreeing to garrison their fighters prior to disarmament. And leaders of the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad vowed to give up control of the governor's administrative offices and the radio station in Kidal on Thursday.
But on Wednesday afternoon the protesters occupied the administrative building in an anti-government demonstration and refused to leave, said resident Mohamed Maiga. The protesters had christened the building "Tahrir Square," a nod to the gathering place that is a frequent focal point for protests in Cairo, Egypt, said Maiga.
"Tuareg officials have not officially rejected the idea of handing over the keys to these buildings, but certain rebels are pushing women and children to protest against this move," said a Malian security source who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The killing earlier this month of two French radio journalists in Kidal highlighted the perilous security situation in the city. Like other cities in northern Mali, Kidal fell to rebels including Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida following a military coup in March 2012. Though a French-led military intervention succeeded in liberating much of northern Mali earlier this year, Kidal has remained in limbo.
Kidal resident Mohamed Ali was among several residents who described seeing Tuareg fighters ride around Kidal carrying guns, a violation of the June accord signed in neighboring Burkina Faso that paved the way for this year's presidential election to be held in the city.
"The NMLA fighters are always circulating with their guns throughout the city, and we know that many of them have weapons inside their homes," Ali said. There is little the army can do in response, said a military commander in Kidal, Col. Mamary Camara.
"The NMLA fighters run around all the time with their weapons in their cars, and when we complain to MINUSMA, the MINUSMA officials tell us these rebels are coming from the bush and they don't know the terms of the agreement," Camara said, using the acronym for Mali's United Nations peacekeeping mission.
In addition to armed members of the NMLA, Kidal regional governor Adama Kamissoko said he was worried about the return of Islamic extremists — a development he said was confirmed by the Nov. 2 killing of Radio France Internationale senior correspondent Ghislaine Dupont and technician Claude Verlon.
The journalists were grabbed just after completing an interview with a Tuareg rebel leader, and their bodies were found hours later. Malian intelligence sources have said the man identified as the lead suspect in the attack, Baye Ag Bakabo, joined an al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb platoon in 2010.
"It is very difficult to distinguish between jihadist elements and elements of the NMLA, but the kidnapping of the two French journalists illustrates the presence of jihadists in Kidal," Kamissoko said. "And in recent months, we have been hearing they are very close to the city."