BAMAKO: Fighting erupted Tuesday in northern Mali between government troops and a group of Tuareg rebels vying for control of the town of Menaka, witnesses said.
An official with a foreign NGO said on condition of anonymity that the rebels appeared to have entered the town, which lies close to the Niger border, and cut off all telephone communications.
"The two telephone networks are no longer working," he told AFP in
Bamako. "Some are saying the rebels have entered the town and others say not. The situation is somewhat unclear."
A resident told AFP that the rebels were "firing from afar and the Malian army is shooting back".
A local official confirmed a battle was underway: "The two camps are fighting for control of the town"
A military source in Bamako said reinforcements were being sent to the town.
The Malian army last week boosted its presence in the north, stationing hundreds of men in Tinzawaten, a town near the Algerian border.
The troops passed through the mountainous region of Zackac where rebel Tuareg forces were living, prompting them to abandon their positions and split into three groups.
"It is one of these groups which attacked Menaka. We cannot rule out that other groups will attack other towns," the local official warned.
Hundreds of armed Malian Tuareg recently returned from Libya where they fought alongside troops of ousted leader Moammer Qaddafi. Their return to the region has raised fears over greater instability in the troubled desert region.
Some returnees have accepted a process of integration offered by President Amadou Toumani Toure, but others have retreated into the desert mountains, their intentions unknown.
A nomadic community of some 1.5 million people, various Tuareg tribes are scattered between Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso.
Mali and Niger experienced uprisings as the Tuareg fought for recognition of their identity and independent state in the 1960s, 1990s and early 2000 with a resurgence between 2006 and 2009.
After these rebellions many fighters left for Libya where they were integrated into Qaddafi’s security forces. After his fall they returned to northern Mali, particularly the Azawad region between Timbuktu and Kidal.
"The already-fragile Sahel-Sahara band must manage the return of soldiers from Libya and the spread of war weapons," Toure said in a New Year’s address to the nation.
The return of the rebels has added to northern Mali’s woes as the region battles Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which has carried out many attacks on troops, kidnappings of Westerners and various trafficking operations, including drugs.
Twelve Europeans are being held hostage in the Sahel strip of northwest African nations on the southern edge of the Sahara by AQIM and a new splinter group calling itself the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
As two paramilitary brigades and military equipment were deployed to the north last week, Security Minister Sadjo Gassama promised that the state would be more present in the troubled area.
"The government will use all necessary resources to secure people and goods in northern Mali," he told journalists.