Tuareg rebels said Sunday they had taken control of an important military base in the north of Mali after having surrounded the location for weeks.
"There are no Malian soldiers left in the base, they have all fled," said Bayes Ag Dicknane, an officer with the rebel forces on the ground near Tessalit. He spoke to the Associated Press by satellite phone.
The news was confirmed by a parliamentary member from the north of Mali who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Col. Idrissa Traore, a spokesman for the Malian army, said that he was verifying the status of the base.
About 600 rebel fighters had taken part in the operation to take the base in Tessalit and none of the rebels had been killed, Ag Dicknane said. He did not say if any Malian troops had died.
The rebels are now chasing vehicles that fled the base, Ag Dicknane said. "One of their vehicles has had an accident and there are 3 people dead and others badly injured. I don't know if the dead are soldiers or civilians"
The government has few bases in the Sahara Desert and Tessalit is of strategic importance because it is one of the largest in northern Mali and it has an airport. The fighters of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad have been surrounding the military base at Tessalit since late January, but said they have held off on an assault because some families of the troops were still inside.
The International Committee of the Red Cross was due to travel to Tessalit on Friday to evaluate the possibility of evacuating civilians. Germain Mwehu, a spokesman for the group, said that the mission to Tessalit was delayed because the Red Cross had not received the security assurances needed from both sides.
Moussa Ag Assarid, a spokesman for the rebels based in Paris, said the military was "using the civilians in the camp as protection."
The Malian army said it has sent a number of ground units to try to resupply the base at Tessalit over the last few weeks. The rebels said their forces always managed to prevent the government forces from reaching the base.
In mid-February the United States carried out a food drop for Tessalit. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Bamako said a U.S. military aircraft dropped enough food for 2,000 people for several days.
The NMLA began attacking towns across north Mali in mid-January.
Dozens of fighters have been killed on both sides and the United Nations says that more than 100,000 civilians have been forced to flee the fighting.
Some of these people have fled to areas in Mali and also in neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania which are already at risk of suffering food shortages this year.
Malian government forces have struggled to defend isolated towns and have often fled instead of standing to fight the rebels.
At the start of February protests broke out in the Malian capital, Bamako, over the way the government was handling the rebellion. Protesters included the wives of military personnel who claimed their husbands on the front line lacked food and equipment.
The rebels say they are fighting for the independence of the north of Mali, a region they refer to as the Azawad.
Among the rebels are Tuareg who once fought for Libya's Moammar Gadhafi but who fled Libya when Gadhafi was toppled and then killed in October last year.