Armed groups from northern Mali on Tuesday claimed to have captured the key town of Bourem, situated between the ancient cities of Gao and Timbuktu, after fighting against the national army.
Authorities in Mali made no comment about the operation, which would confirm fears of a return to hostilities between the army and the northern groups and the end of a peace deal.
Rare reports from the remote region have drawn a confused overall picture, with witnesses talking of the army taking over backed by the air force.
But the Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP) — a coalition of armed factions that had signed a peace agreement with the state in 2015 — issued a statement saying it carried out the operation at Bourem, taking “control of the camp and various advanced posts” from the army and the Russian paramilitary group Wagner.
CSP spokesman Mohamed El Maouloud Ramadane said in the statement that “intense fighting” preceded the town’s capture.
“Unidentified armed groups had encircled the camp and roamed through the town,” local resident Mahamoud Ould Mety said by telephone.
“But the aircraft reacted against them. We can hear more firing, the FAMA (Malian Armed Forces) are everywhere in the town in numbers,” he added.
The alliance of predominantly Tuareg armed groups had from 2012 rebelled against the state but signed a peace agreement with the Malian government three years later.
The fragile deal — known as the Algiers agreement — came under strain after the civilian government was toppled in 2020 and replaced by a junta.
‘War’ With the Junta
One of its signatories, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), on Monday said it considered itself at “war” with the ruling junta.
The region — the cradle of a jihadist insurgency that has swept into three Sahel nations — has seen a resurgence of tension in recent weeks, triggered in part by the pullout of UN peacekeeping troops from Mali.
The CSP framework said on Tuesday it had acted in “legitimate defence in the face of provocations by terrorists from the Malian army accompanied by the Wagner militia.”
Bourem lies on the road between Timbuktu and Gao, close to the Niger River, heading towards the Tuareg fiefdom of Kidal further to the north.
In late August, the junta had called on the armed groups to relaunch dialogue and the ailing peace deal, amid fears of fresh hostilities after the UN peacekeepers withdraw.
The Framework groups worry that the pullout may give the junta a “pretext” to reoccupy zones which the peace accords had ceded from central control.
After the UN peacekeepers quit a base last month there were clashes between troops and jihadists, but also between the army and the CMA.
The Framework says that after the base was vacated the army and Russian Wagner paramilitaries visited violence, including summary executions and abuses such as arbitrary arrest and looting, upon locals.
The UN peacekeeping mission, known as Minusma, has until December 31 to exit Mali after a decade of struggling to stabilize the country.
The 13,000-person mission was ordered to withdraw earlier this year under the demand of Mali’s ruling junta, following the pullout of French troops in 2022.