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Protesters holds a banner reading Thank you Wagner during a demonstration to celebrate France's announcement to withdraw French troops from Mali, in Bamako, on Feb. 19, 2022. Soldiers from the Russian Wagner Group backed Mali's army as it captured a former rebel stronghold in the country's north.FLORENT VERGNES/Getty Images

Mali’s army, backed by Russian troops and weapons, have captured a rebel stronghold in the north of the African country after an assault with drones, helicopters and armoured vehicles.

Russian soldiers from the Wagner Group entered the city of Kidal alongside Malian forces on Tuesday, just two weeks after United Nations peacekeepers had withdrawn from the city. Videos on social media showed some residents cheering and celebrating, although many others had fled the city in fear when the assault began.

Dozens of civilians, including children, have been killed in drone strikes by Mali’s military around Kidal in recent days, according to rebel leaders and local officials.

Mali’s military junta recruited an estimated 1,000 Russian soldiers from Wagner in December, 2021. Since then, the Russians have been implicated with the Malian military in massacres of civilians and other atrocities in the country.

The junta expelled French counter-terrorism forces from Mali last year and ordered the UN peacekeepers to depart this year, leaving it increasingly dependent on the Russian forces.

Kidal was held by separatist Tuareg rebels for most of the past decade. It is one of the biggest and most strategically important cities in northern Mali, where the government has been fighting the rebels and Islamist militias for many years.

Analysts said the capture of Kidal, including the former UN base, is a significant victory for the military junta that seized power in Mali in two coups in 2020 and 2021. It could also boost the power of military regimes in neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, which have forged an alliance with the Malian regime.

“Today, our armed and security forces have taken over Kidal,” the Malian junta leader and interim president, Colonel Assimi Goita, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Col. Goita called it a “turning point” in the government’s campaign against the rebels. He said the military had inflicted “heavy losses” on the rebels and would keep fighting to regain control of all remaining rebel-held territory: “Our mission is not complete.”

An alliance of Tuareg rebel groups, known as CSP, confirmed that it had withdrawn from Kidal. It said the pullout was “for strategic reasons” after several days of fighting.

Kidal has been a key target for the Malian military, which suffered several humiliating defeats in the city from 2012 to 2014.

“This is a major, major victory for the colonels, for the regime, and for the most hawkish people in this regime – those who are close to the Russians,” said Yvan Guichaoua, a Sahel region expert at the Brussels School of International Studies, in a Globe and Mail interview.

“It will now be possible for Assimi Goita to organize elections, which gives him a free pass to become the next president. This is a very important aspect of the whole agenda, and it’s a reason why Kidal was so important for the colonels.”

The Russian troops, many of whom were flown into the northern Mali town of Tessalit last month after the UN withdrew from there, played a key role in the Malian military’s advance into Kidal, analysts said.

“The Russians have been instrumental in this victory,” Dr. Guichaoua said.

“The firepower of the Malian troops and Wagner was bigger. Their technological advantage was huge. Their drones made a terrible impact on CSP’s morale. There were quite a lot of strikes, including against civilians. It terrified the CSP combatants and the population.”

At least 39 peacekeepers were injured by roadside bombs during the UN’s departure from Kidal over the past two weeks. The UN was also obliged to destroy much of its military equipment – including vehicles and ammunition – to prevent it from falling into rebel hands.

The Tuareg rebels briefly took control of the UN base at Kidal after the peacekeepers left on Oct. 31. They have been fighting for decades to create an independent country called Azawad in the deserts of northern Mali.

About 350 kilometres south of Kidal is the larger town of Gao, with another UN base where 250 Canadian soldiers were deployed to support the peacekeeping force with a fleet of eight Canadian helicopters in 2018.

The helicopter mission ended a year later, but a handful of Canadian soldiers and police officers were still deployed in the UN force in Mali this year. They will withdraw with the UN forces by the end of next month, Canadian officials say.

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