By Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo
KIDAL, Mali (Reuters)- At least one Malian soldier and several assailants were killed on Tuesday when Tuareg rebels and former soldiers from Libya attacked a town in northern Mali and were pushed back by the army, the government said.
Tuareg nomads, who have fought several rebellions for a sovereign homeland in the Sahara desert, are believed by Malian authorities and other regional leaders to have received an influx of weapons and men in the aftermath of Libya's war. Their last rebellion ended in 2009.
The Defence Ministry said in a statement read on national television that the former Libyan soldiers and Tuareg rebels under the name the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) attacked Menaka in the Gao region of the West African nation.
"The army, backed by a squadron of the combat helicopters were able to push them back," said the statement signed by Colonel Idrissa Traore, the ministry spokesman.
"Six of the assailants vehicles were destroyed, several of them were killed; some were wounded while many were arrested. One Malian soldier was killed," it said.
A statement on a website purporting to be that of the separatist MNLA said the group launched the attacks and blamed their action on what they said was the Malian government's refusal to engage in dialogue. The statement said the government had instead chosen to built up troops in the region.
"To protect and progressively re-occupy Azawad territory and also respond to Bamako's provocation, the men of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad have chosen to act," the statement said.
"It is in this context that military action started in Menaka this morning," it said.
President Amadou Toumani Toure has been holding talks with Tuareg groups to defuse rising tensions in the remote desert north, where ex-combatants from Libya have been massing.
Mali has also tightened security in its cities, especially in the north, after the abduction of five Westerners and the killing of a sixth.
In two separate incidents in northern Mali in November, two Frenchmen were kidnapped from a hotel while a Dutchman, a South African and a Swede were abducted in the historic trading town of Timbuktu. A German citizen was killed after resisting in the second attack.
Mali, like other countries in the Sahel region, is struggling to contain the rising treat of posed by Islamist militants, rebel groups and contraband traffickers operating across West Africa's remote desert regions.
A resident of Menaka, a bastion of the MNLA, said fighters began attacking the town late on Monday.
"They started firing on the town late Monday until early this morning. A military detachment arrived, they exchanged fire, and now the shooting has stopped," he said, asking not to be named.
The clashes in Menaka come two days after the end of Mali's desert music festival, held near Timbuktu in Mali's north despite the threat from Tuareg factions and al Qaeda allies.
(Additional reporting Bate Felix in Dakar; Writing by Richard Valdmanis and Bate Felix)