BAMAKO — Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure has urged citizens not to attack civilian Tuaregs, after retaliatory raids on the community following the resumption of the Tuareg rebellion.
His remarks in a speech broadcast to the nation on Wednesday night came as the families of soldiers fighting in the north took to the streets in protest against the "weak" response to attacks by the rebels.
Homes and property of Tuareg citizens have been vandalised in the towns of Segou (240 kilometres, 150 miles) from Bamako, and Kati, which is not far from the capital.
In Kati, soldier's wives and children protested on Thursday, chanting slogans accusing Toure of backing rebels and demanding weapons for their husbands.
In a speech focusing on the country's troubled north, Toure said Malians should "avoid the trap of confusion and not play the game of those who have chosen to disturb the peace."
"Those who attacked some military barracks and towns in the north must not be confused with our fellow Tuaregs, Arabs, Songhoi, Fulani, who live with us," said Toure.
He said these communities "who share our difficulties", who chose Mali, have "the same rights and aspirations as us to live in peace in a country dedicated to its development."
The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) and other Tuareg rebels launched a fresh offensive in northern Mali on January 17, attacking several towns and causing thousands to flee.
A Mauritanian administrative source said Thursday some 4,500 Malians fleeing fighting had entered the neighbouring country in recent days.
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Niamey on Wednesday reported about 1,000 people had fled to Niger.
The ongoing offensive is the largest since 2009 by Tuareg rebels, whose ranks have been boosted by the recent return of men who fought in Libya for Moamer Kadhafi.
Bamako accuses the recently formed MNLA of links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose campaign of attacks and kidnappings has dealt a blow to foreign tourism and investment in the region.
Malian government officials were scheduled to meet in Algiers Thursday with Tuareg rebel representatives, a source close to the government told AFP.
"Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga is leading a Malian delegation to Algiers to meet a delegation of the May 23 Alliance" of Tuareg, which includes elements fighting for the MNLA.
The May 23 Alliance is an organisation of former Tuareg rebels who took up arms in May 2006 before signing peace accords with the Malian government with the aid of Algerian mediation.
Alliance spokesman Hamada Ag Bibi is leading the rebel delegation to Algiers.
"One should never refuse to give peace a chance," said a high-ranking Malian official on condition of anonymity.
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