By Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Nine Malian soldiers were killed in an attack by Tuareg separatist rebels on a town near the border with Mauritania, the defense ministry said on Thursday, further clouding prospects for a U.N.-brokered peace deal.
Wednesday's attack on the town of Lere, southwest of Timbuktu, was the latest in a series of clashes between the rebels, the Malian army, and a militia allied to the government.
Six more soldiers were wounded and another six were taken hostage, the ministry statement said. Ten rebels were killed and 16 wounded in the clashes, it added. The information could not immediately be independently verified.
"They attacked with at least 10 vehicles, six of them equipped with machine guns," a military source said, asking to remain anonymous.
The United Nations has warned that the growing tensions have endangered a peace deal due to receive preliminary approval from the government and armed groups in the capital Bamako on May 15.
The northern half of Mali has witnessed several days of violence. Pro-government militia seized Menaka, near the Niger border, on Monday, while two soldiers and a civilian were killed on Wednesday when separatist rebels attacked Goundam, which lies between Timbuktu and Lere. [ID:nL8N0XP3FR]
A militant with the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), an umbrella organization of Tuareg and Arab separatist groups, said that fresh fighting erupted outside Menaka on Thursday.
Olivier Salgado, spokesman for the U.N.'s Mali mission, known as MINUSMA, told Reuters that it had received reports of clashes both northeast and southeast of the town, seriously wounding at least one person.
He said CMA fighters also entered the town of Bintagoungou, 80 km (50 miles) west of Timbuktu, before leaving without a confrontation. A Malian military source said the rebels looted Bintagoungou and the nearby town of Mbouna before withdrawing.
The head of MINUSMA, Mongi Hamdi, called for the rival factions to respect previously agreed ceasefire deals.
"I appeal to the reason and responsibility of all the engaged actors. The stakes are too great," he said. "All parties, whoever they may be, must respect their engagements and return to their initial positions."
In another sign of mounting insecurity in the West African nation despite the presence of 10,000 U.N peacekeepers, two women were killed when a car they were traveling in hit a land mine near the northern town of Gossi on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Souleymane Ag Anara; Writing by Bate Felix and Joe Bavier; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Mark Trevelyan)