05 June 2013 14:24 defenceWeb (Reuters)
The Malian army said it seized the village of Anefis following heavy fighting with the Tuareg separatist MNLA and was heading towards the nearby town of Kidal, the rebels' last stronghold.
It was the first fighting between the MNLA and the Malian army since a French-led military offensive launched in January. The French campaign ended Islamists' 10-month domination of Mali's desert north but left the Tuareg rebels in control of Kidal.
Mali's interim government accused the MNLA of violence against non-Tuaregs on Monday. The army has vowed to retake Kidal before national elections scheduled for late July, Reuters reports.
"Our troops have taken Anefis this morning after intense fighting," said army spokesman Colonel Souleymane Maiga, adding that the fighting had begun early on Wednesday.
Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, Paris-based spokesman for the MNLA, said in a statement there was fighting between the Malian forces and MNLA fighters in Anefis but did not provide further details.
The MNLA has rejected Bamako's calls for it to lay down its weapons, saying it would resist any attempt to retake Kidal. It has said it is open to negotiations with the government if northern Mali's right to self-determination is recognized.
The MNLA was not targeted by the French offensive and has since been able to retake some areas, including Kidal. But this has strained relations between France and the transitional government in the southern capital, Bamako.
The MNLA rose up early last year, calling for the creation of a Tuareg homeland in northern Mali. It joined forces with al Qaeda-associated fighters and together they overran the north, but the better armed Islamists quickly took control of the rebellion.