Bamako - Malian soldiers retreated from the northern town of Kidal on Wednesday after heavy gun battles with ethnic Tuareg separatists, a major setback for the army less than a year after its highly unpopular return to the rebel stronghold.
Fighting reignited early on Wednesday in the town, according to residents who stayed inside their homes as the gun battles intensified near the governor's office. A weekend of violence was followed by a couple days without intense fighting.
Captain Remi, a spokesperson with the French forces who did not give his last name in accordance with French military policy, said the Malian army was seen leaving the town later in the day.
Over the weekend the rebels had stormed government buildings, killing at least eight civilians and taking more than 30 hostages who were later released.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday he was "deeply concerned by the rapidly deteriorating situation in Kidal,"according to statement from his spokesperson.
After being chased from Kidal in early 2012, Mali's military was allowed to return last July, just before the country's long-awaited presidential election.
The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert, have risen up against the central government in Mali several times since the country's independence from France in 1960. Their quest for autonomy has had fallout far beyond the land they call the Azawad.
It was the Malian government's weak response to the Tuaregs' 2012 rebellion that propelled mutinous soldiers to launch a coup in the capital. The rank-and-file soldiers who were overwhelmingly from the south, had died in large numbers trying to keep towns in the north out of the hands of the Tuareg rebels.
The overthrow of the president in 2012 ushered in a power vacuum that allowed al-Qaeda-linked militants to hijack the takeover by secular separatist rebels. A French-led military intervention in 2013 scattered the Islamic extremists, but Tuareg separatists have retained a strong presence in Kidal despite efforts by the central government to control the northern town.
Ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs later became the victims of reprisal killings, and already concerns were mounting on Wednesday about the potential for further targeted violence. One demonstration this week in support of the Malian army's return to Kidal denigrated into protesters attacking Arab- and Tuareg-owned businesses in Kidal.
"Resuming hostilities amid such dangerously elevated ethnic tension carries tremendous risk for civilians and detainees alike," said Corinne Dufka, senior researcher for West Africa with Human Rights Watch.
"The commanders from all sides simply must do all they can to ensure their men respect the laws of war and avoid collective punishment and reprisals."