Protesters rally in support of the Malian soldiers fighting the Tuareg rebels in the north
Mali sought Friday to stamp out growing fury over a Tuareg rebellion in the troubled north which has sparked protests over the government’s response to the offensive and attacks on light-skinned citizens.
Thousands have also fled the largely desert region for neighbouring Niger and Mauritania.
President Amadou Toumani Toure met Friday with women worried about the fate of their husbands fighting the Tuareg rebels, who launched their first offensive in three years in the north of the west African nation.
« This is closing the page of misunderstanding, and opening a new page so that everyone can talk, » said a presidential official, requesting anonymity.
« The president recognizes that women have the right to receive news about their husbands on the frontline. It is also necessary to improve the conditions for Malian soldiers facing the enemy. »
The wives and family of soldiers have condemned the « softness of government » toward the Tuareg offensive which has seen the rebels, demanding greater autonomy for their desert tribe, attack several northern towns.
Protests turned violent on Thursday in Bamako, Segou in the centre of the country and Kati, prompting calls from Washington for renewed peace talks.
The conflict also increased tensions between the different ethnic communities in the country.
Tuareg homes and properties were vandalised and angry protesters also targeted their anger at other light-skinned communities such as the Arabs or Mauritanians.
Calm returned on Friday but traffic was lower than usual, an AFP journalist said, adding that some 11 shops had been looted and the remnants of burned tyres lay on the city’s roads.
« The United States is deeply concerned by continuing incidents of violence in northern Mali, » State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
« We condemn the attacks by armed groups against a number of northern towns. »
The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) and other Tuareg rebels launched a fresh offensive in northern Mali on January 17.
Both the army and Tuareg are believed to have suffered heavy losses during the fighting, but death tolls given from either side are difficult to confirm independently.
The offensive is the largest since 2009 by Tuareg rebels, whose ranks have been boosted by the recent return of men who fought in Libya for Moamer Kadhafi.
« We call for a resumption of dialogue toward a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict, » Nuland said in her statement.
« We further condemn the apparent retaliatory attacks against members of ethnic groups associated with the situation in the north, » Nuland said.
Dozens of Mauritanians sought refuge in their embassy in Bamako on Thursday, some of whom returned home on Friday, according to concurrent sources.
The violence came despite an appeal by president Toure for citizens not to confuse the rebels with Tuareg living peacefully amongst them.
« Those who attacked some military barracks and towns in the north must not be confused with our fellow Tuaregs, Arabs, Songhoi, Fulani, who live with us, » said Toure.
These communities « who share our difficulties », who chose Mali, have « the same rights and aspirations as us to live in peace in a country dedicated to its development, » he said.
On Thursday Toure swapped his defence and security ministers, without explaining why.
A Malian government delegation was in Algiers for talks with Tuareg rebel representatives, but no details were available from the meetings.
A nomadic community of some 1.5 million people, Tuareg of various tribes are scattered between Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Niger and Mali.
Mali and Niger experienced uprisings as the Tuareg fought for recognition of their identity and an independent state in the 1960s, 1990s and early 2000 with a resurgence between 2006 and 2009.
The return of the rebels has added to northern Mali’s woes as the region battles Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which has carried out many attacks on troops, kidnappings of Westerners and various trafficking operations, including drugs.
By Serge Daniel