A new Tuareg rebel group, whose members include former pro-Gadhafi fighters, launched its first attack on Tuesday on at least one town in Mali. Government forces fought back, including with helicopters.
Many ethnic Tuareg fighters who had fought for Moammar Gadhafi returned home with their weapons to Mali after the Libyan strongman was killed in October. Some joined a rebel group called the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, which was formed that same month.
Most of the fighting was in Menaka, a town in eastern Mali, said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, an NMLA leader who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone from Paris. The attack broke two years of relative peace in the area.
"Operations are continuing in Menaka and some other towns as well. Our aim is to liberate these towns," Ag Acharatoumane said. He said he was talking to fighters on the ground by satellite phone.
Bakine Ag Bambalo, a trader in Menaka, said residents heard gunfire and explosions erupt in the morning.
"We heard rifles being fired and some heavy weapons too," the trader said, adding that Malian helicopters then came and fired at the attackers. Two reconnaissance planes also flew overhead, he said. The fighting tapered off by midday and people returned to the streets, he told AP.
Ag Acharatoumane said he had no information about casualties and refused to give details about the other towns the group purportedly attacked.
"We've taken this action because we tried to open a dialogue with the government but they reacted by denying there's a real problem and sending their army to occupy our towns," Ag Acharatoumane said. The group is fighting for the independence of north Mali, he said.
Ag Acharatoumane said later Tuesday that the Tuareg rebels controlled Menaka and the military barracks there. The army denied the claim.
"I can confirm there was an attack on the town of Menaka early this morning. Our forces returned fire and we are now in control of the situation," Army Col. Idrissa Traore told the AP by phone in Bamako, the capital. "The rumors circulating that the rebels control the military barracks at Menaka are not true."
Ag Bambalo, the trader, said helicopters were still flying overhead late in the day.
The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad was created when a number of Tuareg groups hostile to the government came together. Azawad, a name mainly used by Tuareg nationalists, refers to the Tuareg-speaking zone covering northern Mali, northern Niger, and southern Algeria where many of the blue-turbaned nomads live.
The Malian government has expressed concern since the start of the war in Libya about its effects on security in Mali, a nation at the foot of the Sahara in northwest Africa.
The Tuaregs have long complained that Mali's central government _ which is dominated by ethnic groups from the country's south _ has ignored the nation's impoverished north.
Successive peace deals signed with the Tuaregs, including several that were mediated by Gadhafi himself, were supposed to give a greater share of the nation's resources to the Tuaregs but some factions have said the government did not fulfill its promises.
Gadhafi counted the Tuaregs among his most loyal supporters. He had created an entire battalion led exclusively by Tuaregs, who come from the nations at the feet of the Sahara desert including Libya, Niger, Mali and Chad.
When Gadhafi's son and three of his generals fled to Niger, it was Tuaregs who arranged the convoy and drove the cars.
Mali and Niger have voiced concerns over the influx of the armed Tuareg fighters. Both countries battled Tuareg-led insurgencies in the 1990s, and Mali faced a rebellion which flared in 2006. The last attack on a major Malian town happened in December 2008.