DAKAR, Senegal – Tuareg separatist rebels agreed to sign a peace deal with the government in just over a week's time but that hasn't stopped them from attacking towns and encroaching further south toward Mali's capital. The toll has risen to 30 dead in recent days.
The most recent violence may be an attempt by Tuareg separatists to gain ground before the May 15 signing ceremony. The peace deal came after months of negotiations in Algeria between Mali's government, Tuareg separatist groups and government-allied armed groups.
The traditionally nomadic Tuaregs, wanting greater autonomy for the country's northern region, have risen up against the central government in Mali several times since the country's independence from France in 1960. The most recent uprising opened the door for jihadists to seize half of Mali after government forces scattered in 2012. That prompted a French military intervention in 2013.
These new attacks are likely trying to spread government forces and keep them off balance, said Bruce Whitehouse, associate professor of anthropology at Lehigh University who has lived in Mali and often writes about it.
"The groups are jockeying for position. They think if an agreement is signed they at least want a position of strength when that happens," Whitehouse said.
After the al-Qaida extremists were driven out of cities in northern Mali by the French, skirmishes soon resumed between government forces and Tuareg separatists until a cease-fire was reached in the summer of 2014. But fighting has persisted and has increased in recent days.
Last month, fighters allied with the government took over the town of Menaka. Fighting continued on the town's outskirts for days, as separatists took the town of Lere and killed national guard members and others in the town of Goundam. Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadane, a spokesman for the separatist Coordination of Azawad Movements, says it wants government-allied fighters to leave Menaka.
"If they don't leave, we have already placed our men about the town of Menaka with more than 80 vehicles equipped with heavy weaponry," he said.
Separatists also fired upon U.N. peacekeeping vehicles near Timbuktu. On Tuesday, the rebels pushed into Tenenkou in Mali's central Mopti region, killing 11.
Mediators now fear the violence is getting so bad that the whole peace agreement could dissolve.
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Bamako, Mali.