By Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Tuareg separatists repulsed an attempt by Mali's army to seize control of their stronghold town of Kidal in intense fighting on Wednesday, diplomats and a spokesman for the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) said.
Mali launched the offensive to retake control of Kidal after a clash on Saturday while Prime Minister Moussa Mara was visiting. At least eight soldiers and eight civilians were killed. Government forces then reinforced their positions.
The fighting threatens efforts to find a peaceful solution to the long cycle of Tuareg rebellions in the desert north. It also upsets plans by France and several West African countries to combat Islamist militants operating in the wider region where they are regarded as a threat to trade and foreign investment, including oil and gas installations in North Africa.
In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate cessation of the fighting and the establishment of a ceasefire in the sprawling West African country.
Attaye Ag Mohamed, an MNLA official in Kidal, told Reuters by telephone from Kidal, that the group was in control of the northern stronghold town. "All of Kidal including the Malian Military Camp 1, the regional governor's office and the Kidal fortress are in our control," Mohamed said, adding that several Malian army soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured.
"On our side, two fighters were killed and eight others were wounded," he said.
Malian government officials were not immediately available to comment. A Bamako-based diplomat also told Reuters that the Malian army offensive had been beaten back, making it look like an ill-timed attack that could embarrass the government.
Another diplomat told Reuters that the Malian army camp had fallen to the rebels and several wounded Malian soldiers were being evacuated by the U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSMA and French troops.
"At around 10 a.m., the Malian armed forces launched operations to secure and take control of Kidal. The operations are ongoing," said a government statement read on state radio earlier on Wednesday.
A Defence Ministry source said the army began an assault on the regional governor's office in Kidal after it was seized at the weekend by Tuaregs separatists.
A Kidal trader told Reuters that the town's main market had been destroyed in the fighting.
"These aren't just shots, it's fighting. There's been shooting for an hour without interruption," Kidal resident Assikadaye Ag Warzagane told Reuters by telephone.
Mali was thrown into turmoil in 2012 when al Qaeda-linked Islamists took advantage of a Tuareg-led rebellion and seized control of the country's north. A French-led military operation, known as Serval, drove them back last year.
The government agreed with a number of armed groups to hold talks over autonomy last year. The groups included the MNLA, which broke with the Islamists before the French offensive.
The flare-up in a trouble spot many had hoped was now under control occurred as West African nations and their international partners have been redoubling efforts to contain Islamist insurgents such as Boko Haram in Nigeria.
France, in particular, had hoped to move troops from Mali and other bases to target Islamist groups operating between southern Libya, northern Chad and northern Niger, fearing the fighters could use the region as a base for wider attacks.
However, French officials said on Tuesday the redeployment, expected to involve around 3,000 troops, would be delayed in light of the situation in northern Mali.
And on Wednesday, an army spokesman said France would reinforce its presence in Mali with 100 more soldiers, bringing total deployment to its former colony to some 1,700.
"The decision has been taken to bring forces from Abidjan to Gao, given the current period of tension," spokesman Gilles Jaron told reporters in Paris. Numbers were being increased for two to three weeks to allow "more flexibility", he said.
(Additional reporting by Bate Felix, Joe Bavier and David Lewis in Dakar and John Irish and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Joe Bavier and Bate Felix; Editing by Mark Heinrich)