By Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Islamist gunmen fought Tuareg separatist rebels on Monday in a battle for control of the town of Menaka in Mali's northern desert, close to the border with Niger, both sides said.
The renewed fighting came as African leaders put the finishing touches on an international intervention plan to retake Mali's north from a patchwork of armed groups.
"The fighting started early this morning and it is ongoing," said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a France-based spokesman for the independence-seeking MNLA Tuareg group.
"We have not given up on Menaka," he added.
A spokesman for al Qaeda-linked Islamist group MUJWA said its fighters had already seized control of the town, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Niger border, in clashes that had left many MNLA fighters "dead, wounded, and imprisoned."
Neither side could give details on casualties.
The MNLA declared an independent Tuareg homeland in April after routing government troops in the wake of a March coup, but it has since lost control of the zone to Islamists.
MNLA and MUJWA had also clashed on Friday, their first bout of fighting in several months, since MUJWA ousted the MNLA from the regional capital Gao in June.
West African mediator Burkina Faso has been holding talks with MNLA representatives and members of Ansar Dine, another al Qaeda-linked Islamist group occupying parts of Mali's north, as it seeks to open dialogue with some of the rebels.
Groups that come to a negotiated deal would be spared from the planned African offensive but MUJWA and AQIM - al Qaeda's North African wing which it operates alongside - are not being considered for talks.
The international military operation is due to be led by Mali's own military and backed by an African force but will not be ready until some time next year.
MUJWA has warned that any such intervention would trigger an Iraq-style quagmire in the West African state.
(Additional reporting and writing by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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