BAMAKO/DAKAR (Reuters) - Pro-government armed groups in Mali seized the northern town of Menaka from Tuareg separatists on Monday after fierce fighting, a spokesman for the group and a resident said.
The clashes between the armed groups comes after months of relative calm and risks derailing a fragile U.N. peace process that aims to settle the future of Mali's desert north, known by separatists as Azawad.
The vast region has been hit by four insurgencies in the last five decades, with rebels fighting for independence or a form of self-rule from the government in the south, which they accuse of neglected their homeland.
Militants from the Gatia pro-government group and a faction of a northern Arab militia also favorable to the government camp, the Arab Azawad Movement (MAA), attacked the town on Monday morning, a Gatia spokesman said.
Menaka lies around 200 km (125 miles) east of Gao, the largest city of northern Mali, close to the border with Niger. It had been controlled by the main Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
"At this hour, the MNLA flag is no longer flying above Menaka," Gatia spokesman Medhi Ag Almoubareck said.
MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatoumane confirmed that fighting broke out on Monday morning, adding that reinforcements were on their way to confront pro-government forces.
It was not immediately clear if there were any deaths or injuries as a result of the clashes.
Ag Almoubareck said pro-government forces had taken about 30 prisoners in the raid which he says was in retaliation for attacks on their supporters, including the lynching of several women. It was not possible to independently confirm that.
For months, U.N. and Algerian mediators have been thrashing out a peace proposal that aims to prevent future revolts by Tuareg-led insurgents.
The most recent uprising came in 2012 when Tuareg rebels formed an alliance with Islamist militants to seize control briefly of the northern two-thirds of Mali.
After weeks of dithering, a coalition of rebels said late on Sunday they would give initial approval to a long-delayed U.N. peace proposal, following similar pledges from other armed groups and the government.
(Reporting by Souleymane Ag Anara and Emma Farge; Editing by Crispian Balmer)