Mali drone strikes kill civilians in town of Kidal, officials and rebels say

BAMAKO (Reuters) - At least 12 civilians were killed by drone strikes around the town of Kidal in northern Mali on Tuesday, including on a base vacated days earlier by a United Nations peacekeeping mission, a local official and a rebel group said.

The strikes appear to be the first sign of conflict in Kidal, a stronghold of ethnic Tuareg rebels, since the U.N. left in a hurry on Oct. 31, part of its wider withdrawal from the West African country as security worsens.

Security experts warn the area could now become the epicentre of a war over the north as the rebels and the army seek to take areas that the U.N. vacates, further destabilising Mali, where Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State also roam.

A local official, Ahamoudane Ag Ikmasse, said between 12 and 15 civilian deaths had been reported on Tuesday's strikes and that one of the drones fell near a school. A spokesperson of the rebel movement, the Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security and Development (CSP-PSD), said 20 people died.

The rebel spokesperson blamed the army and Russian mercenaries that work with Mali's military authorities.

"There were three drone strikes on the (former U.N.) base and one hit a group of children that were collecting objects from the camp," Elmaouloud Ramadane said via telephone.

He said a second fell near an airfield and struck civilians, while the third missed its target.

Mali's army did not respond to requests for comment.

It released a statement on X later on Tuesday saying it had carried out strikes on the camp in Kidal and "neutralised" several pick-up trucks belonging to "terrorists". It did not mention civilian casualties.

Violence in Mali has spiked since June when the military junta, which took power in a 2021 coup, ordered the U.N.'s decade-old peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA, to leave.

The mission has until Dec. 31 to depart and has already withdrawn over 6,000 of the near 14,000-strong force.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Edward McAllister and by Sandra Maler)