Dakar — The president of Mali dissolved a committee that was formed to reform the army and the government has freed 23 prisoners with rebel ties, in a move that could reopen negotiations with the MNLA rebel group.
Clashes this week in the Malian rebel stronghold of Kidal, and a mutiny at the Kati military camp outside the capital, forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to cut short an official visit to France. The president had harsh words for the unruly soldiers and rebels but said he remains committed to reform and dialogue.
The flare-ups at Kati and in Kidal served as bitter reminders that, while France may have declared victory against jihadist groups once in control of the north, the rebellion and subsequent military coup of early 2012 that sunk Mali into crisis still hang like shadows over the country.
Members of the former junta at the Kati military camp fired their weapons and took an army colonel hostage Monday, saying they were passed over during a recent round of promotions. Keita told the nation he will "not tolerate indiscipline and anarchy."
The president said an investigation is under way and called the mutiny a "slap in the face to the country" at a time when soldiers from other countries are "coming to our soil to defend us, some of them to the point of ultimate sacrifice."
Keita, who has broad-based support in the military, said he remains committed to overhauling the armed forces which analysts say are severely dysfunctional and undertrained.
The president said he is dissolving what critics have said is a largely ineffectual army reform committee run by ex-junta chief Amadou Sanogo, who was promoted from the rank of captain to general by the former interim government just before Keita took office.
"Kati will no longer intimidate Bamako, or at least not Koulouba," the president said, referring to the site of the presidential palace. He also said he is giving notice to "all those in Kidal who continue this blackmail, violence and violation of the June 18 Ouagadougou accord."
Malian soldiers and MNLA rebels clashed in the rebel stronghold of Kidal Sunday and Monday. Both sides accuse the other of striking first. Tensions have been high in Kidal since the MNLA pulled out of the peace process in September, saying the government was not living up to the terms of that cease-fire deal signed in June.
Keita is calling them back to the table, saying he is committed to improving the system of decentralization.
"My hand remains outstretched," Keita said. "Brothers, set aside your Kalashnikovs, which bring no future, and come to dialogue."
According to the terms of the Ouagadougou accords, regionally mediated talks were to begin in early November, 60 days after Keita took office.
The president has said he will not consider independence or any form of semi-autonomy for the north, something that the MNLA has said is unacceptable.
However, the Malian government did free 23 MNLA prisoners on Wednesday per the terms of the Ouagadougou accord, a move that could re-open the road to negotiations.