APDarker-complexioned citizens of Kidal – a city in northern-Mali, Africa – allege lighter-skinned rebels from the Taureg ethnic group are attempting to exile them.

A spokesman from the National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), the rebel group allegedly responsible for expelling natives, told the Associated Press ethnic-cleansing is not occurring in Kidal. “It’s not a matter of black or white. It’s a matter of our security,” the spokesman said.

The spokesman also confirmed more than 200 people were arrested over the weekend and only a dozen or so have been released.

A black resident of Kidal told the AP, “”This morning, the people of the NMLA read a communique on the radio in Kidal informing us that all blacks that are not known as having been long-term residents of Kidal will be expelled in the direction of Mali, meaning towards Gao, to the south of Kidal.”

Mali has an extensive history of colorism and division based on ethnic identity.  The country’s southern region is “primarily inhabited by darker-skinned ethnic groups, and its north, the traditional homeland of the lighter-skinned Tuareg people.” The Tuareg are currently controlling Kidal.

The Associated Press reports:

The Tuaregs have picked up arms against Mali’s government multiple times since 1960 to demand greater rights. Last year after what they said was decades of neglect by the distant central government, the NMLA launched the latest rebellion and seized Mali’s northern half. They now control the city of Kidal, which is predominantly Tuareg, though has a sizeable black population.

One black resident of Kidal said that she believed the threat of expulsion is linked to the recent reprisal killings of Tuaregs by Mali’s army.

“The people that belong to the NMLA told us that they want us to leave their town because the Malian army is continuing to kill Tuareg civilians in Gossi, in the region of Timbuktu,” said Aicha Maiga.

At the same time, a march was planned in Kidal on Monday by supporters of the NMLA. The Malian military has not been back to Kidal since March 2012, when the NMLA seized the town. Northern Mali was soon overrun by a trio of al-Qaida-linked groups which swiftly kicked out the NMLA, and for nearly 10 months, the France-sized territory they controlled became a magnet for jihadists attempting to establish an Islamic state, luring extremists from as far afield as Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Europe. In January, French forces launched a military intervention to flush out al-Qaida, and the Malian military was able to return to most of the cities in the north – with the exception of Kidal.

Soon after French forces ousted the Islamic rebels from Kidal, the NMLA rebels returned, setting up checkpoints and appointing their own Tuareg governor. They are threatening to go to war if the Malian military tries to return to Kidal. At the base of the problem is a longstanding racial dichotomy: The Malian military is made-up of mostly black recruits from the south, and they are accused of carrying out reprisals against the lighter-skinned ethnicities including the Tuaregs in the cities they have recently reconquered, including Timbuktu and Gao.

“This morning, the market of Kidal is closed, and all the boutiques in neighboring districts are shut,” said another black resident of Kidal, Nouri Maiga. “The NMLA is inviting everyone to march today in order to say `no’ to Mali’s presence in the town of Kidal, and in order to cry out that in Kidal there will be only, `Azawad,'” he said, using the Tamasheq word referring to northern Mali, the area that the Tuareg’s consider as their birthright and traditional homeland.

Despite the history and allegations, another rebel spokesman is still denying the exiling of darker-skinned Kidal residents.

Ag Assarid, a Paris-based NMLA representative said, “The NMLA is not in the business of carrying out an ethnic war. We do not talk of black or white skin. This isn’t true. What is true is that we learned that Mali’s security apparatus is trying to infiltrate Kidal … we need to secure the city of Kidal, and so we have detained and interrogated people that residents of Kidal who we know are not normal residents, and who don’t have a valid reason for being there. And the majority were freed. … It’s not a question of skin color,” he said.

Mali is in the midst of an election cycle. The country will select a new president on June 28.

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