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Around 30 missing after rebels clash with Malian army

BAMAKO, Mali--Around 30 civilians and soldiers went missing following clashes between separatist militants and the Malian army in the rebel-controlled northern city of Kidal, officials said on Sunday.

The fighting broke out on Saturday outside the regional governor's offices as Mali's Prime Minister Moussa Mara was visiting Kidal as part of his first tour of the country's restive northern desert.

“About 30 of our personnel have been reported missing since yesterday. We do not know their fate. We also do not know exactly how many of them are being held by the rebels,” a source in the office said.

Tuareg separatists shot dead a Malian soldier as the two sides exchanged fire over several hours, members of the premier's entourage as well as military sources told AFP.

The Malian army has not released details of casualties in the firefight but the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg rebel group, said in a statement one of its fighters was wounded and four Malian soldiers were killed.

Malian Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga was unavailable for comment, but earlier on Sunday he announced reinforcements in Kidal.

“The Malian armed forces will strengthen their positions quite quickly in Kidal and its surroundings to secure people and property,” he said.

“We will double our troops on the ground if necessary.”

Kidal, 1,500 kilometers northeast of the capital Bamako, was the scene of anti-government protests by several hundred youths and women on Friday and Saturday who demonstrated at the regional airport against the visit.

Mara's predecessor Oumar Tatam Ly was forced to cancel a trip in November to Kidal — the stronghold of Mali's Tuareg separatist movement — after protesters occupied a runway at the airport.

MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali said in a statement it “strongly condemns these acts of violence.”

“Such developments are counterproductive and contrary to the will of the people of Mali, who aspire to peace and lasting stability,” the statement added.

The force said on Saturday 19 of its police and seven protesters had been wounded in clashes at the airport since the demonstrations began, though none seriously.

Armed Islamists

Mara, who was appointed last month, began his tour of the north in the desert caravan town of Timbuktu and he stayed overnight in Kidal, arriving on Sunday for the final leg in Gao, northern Mali's largest city.

“The prime minister left Kidal this morning with his delegation by helicopter ... its is calm at the moment,” an official from MINUSMA told AFP.

A member of Mara's entourage said the premier traveled with at least one wounded soldier, giving no other details.

The MNLA evacuated the governor's offices in November last year after a nine-month occupation.

The move was in line with the terms of a June peace deal, which paved the way for presidential elections across the country.

But the process deeply divided the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad, the minority Tuareg name for their homeland in northern Mali.

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