Hopes that the Malian government and the main armed groups in the north will sign the Algiers Declaration on 15 May, an accord that took months to negotiate, faded with last week's ceasefire violations.
About 50 Tuareg rebels attacked the town of Bintagoungou, west of Timbuktu, on Thursday. Mayor Hama Aboubacrine is blaming the raid on the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a Tuareg rebel umbrella organisation.
"All the shops, all the grocery stores anyway, all street vendors, have been looted," he told RFI in a phone interview. "The community health centre has been totally looted." The raid in Bintagoungou came on the heels of two other deadly attacks last week.
A pro-government militia, Gatia, and ethnic Arab allies from the loyalist Arab Azawad Movement (MAA) overran last Monday the town of Ménaka, which had been under partial CMA rebel control.
In retaliation, the insurgents targeted government forces in the town of Léré, a deadly assault they described in a statement Sunday as "legitimate self-defence."
"The process was already very fragile and it has been completely ruined by the pro-government militia's decision to occupy Ménaka," Yvan Guichaoua, a University of East Anglia researcher, said in a phone interview.
To compound the problem, the CMA wants to make last-minute changes to the deal. The rebels would like to see a stronger affirmation of Azawad (the Tuareg homeland in the north) as a territorial entity, a greater presence of Tuaregs in the Malian security forces and a greater share of mineral resources.
Both the Malian government and the Algerian mediation have rejected rebel proposals. The deal as it stands is already problematic from the government's point of view. Loyalists in Bamako but also among non-Tuaregs in the north fear that "privileges" granted to the CMA may be a forerunner to partition in a centralised, unitary state.
"Many people who are loyal to the government in Bamako and who want to see a united Mali see the agreement as going much too far toward some kind of federalism," explained social anthropologist Bruce Whitehouse.
"There's opposition to any kind of concession to rebel demands and I don't see any sort of pragmatic logic at work on either side, saying: 'Look, let's concentrate on what we can agree on.'"
It's unclear if both sides would have signed an accord in mid-May even if there hadn't been any clashes.
"There was actually [a] very small window of opportunity to find a solution", said Guichaoua. Observers fear that Mali is headed for a stalemate with skirmishes continuing and multiplying. "It think that it's in the interest of both camps [loyalists and separatists] to continue with the current status quo. The rebels are not recognised as an independent state, but they have de facto sovereignty and they can control the trade routes that go through their territory."
Questions are being raised about the armed Islamist groups that despite the presence of French troops under Opération Serval are still operating in northern Mali. They can capitalise on resentment in both camps, according to Guichaoua.
"The Islamists do represent a 'third way' [...] but no automatic re-alignement can be easily predicted," he said.
The UN Security Council has demanded an immediate halt to the fighting in Mali and threatened to impose sanctions against those responsible for the violence.
The council has already threatened to impose sanctions. In a statement, it said it would now "evaluate next steps" following the fresh fighting.