Armed groups from northern Mali on Wednesday claimed they captured the key town of Bourem, between Gao and Timbuktu, before pulling out, fuelling fears of the collapse of a peace deal between the ex-rebels and government forces.
A senior army official said troops had regained control of its positions in Bourem with the help of air support.
The Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP) — a coalition of armed factions that signed a peace agreement with the state in 2015 — issued a statement Wednesday saying it launched an operation at Bourem, taking “control of the camp and various advanced posts” from the army and the allied Russian paramilitary group Wagner.
CSP spokesman Mohamed El Maouloud Ramadane said in the statement that “intense fighting” preceded the town’s capture.
A local commander, who asked not to be named, added: “We have retaken control of the camp and area around Bourem after the air force intervened and combed the area.”
“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”.
An alliance of predominantly Tuareg armed groups launched a revolt in 2012 against the state but signed a peace agreement 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.
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 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 the ancient city of Timbuktu and Gao, close to the Niger River, heading towards the Tuareg fiefdom of Kidal further to the north.
Rivalries have recently intensified between the multitude of armed actors vying for control of the north.
They include jihadist groups fighting against the Malian army, jihadist groups fighting among themselves, Tuareg armed groups fighting against jihadists and Tuareg groups fighting against the Malian army.
The tensions have led to a succession of attacks and clashes.
A suicide attack targeted a military base at Gao on Friday killing around 10 soldiers, the army said Tuesday. That incident came a day after deadly strikes by suspected jihadists on a northern army camp and a passenger boat killed 64 people.
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 former rebel 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 the Ber base near Timbuktu 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 carried out summary executions and abuses such as arbitrary arrests and looting against locals.
The UN peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA, has until December 31 to exit Mali after a decade of struggling to stabilise the country.
Mali’s ruling junta earlier this year ordered the 13,000-person mission to withdraw, following the pullout of French troops in 2022.