Rebels taking advantage of a coup are negotiating with soldiers for a peaceful resolution in Mali's strategic northern garrison town of Kidal, according to representatives of the Sahara's nomadic Tuareg people.
Sources in Mali and neighboring Niger said Monday the rebels hope to take Kidal without a fight. The sources asked not to be named because the situation is dangerous.
Kidal would be a major prize for the rebels, who relaunched their decades-old fight in mid-January, led by battle-hardened officers and troops who fought for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and returned home heavily armed. Kidal is one of two major northern towns that failed to fall in two previous Tuareg rebellions in the 1990s and 2000s.
It's not known how many civilians remain in the town of about 26,000 where soldiers are living with their families.
A source in Niger's government said a column of rebels also headed Sunday for the main northern city of Gao, intent on pressing their advantage to the government's main stronghold in northern Mali. Gao is about 300 kilometers (190 miles) south of Kidal.
The rebels have profited from the disarray in Mali's military command following Wednesday's coup by soldiers led by a middle-ranking U.S.-trained officer. Coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo has said he wants to negotiate with the rebels, but he also has promised to give the army what it needs to halt the insurgency.
Disgruntled soldiers staged Wednesday's coup charging the government was not giving troops the arms, ammunition and food supplies needed to defend themselves and fight the rebels. Troops short of ammunition and morale have fled several smaller towns against the rebel advance in recent weeks.
Condemnation from around the world has not deterred the mutinous soldiers.
The European Union, Canada, the World Bank and the African Development Bank all have cut aid, and the United States is threatening to cut all but humanitarian aid.
Mali is at the heart of a Western-backed initiative to fight al-Qaida's thriving African wing, which is funded from the proceeds of drugs, arms trafficking and hostage-taking operations in Tuareg territory in the Sahara desert.
A Niger government source speaking to both sides in the conflict said a colonel from Kidal, Malik ag Sherif, defected with 30 soldiers, 10 vehicles and their arms overnight Saturday. That was confirmed by a source in the garrison in Kidal.
The insurgents hope to win over more troops from the garrison manned mainly by Tuaregs.
An adviser to ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure who is in Niger confirmed that talks were taking place just outside Kidal, as did a source close to Kidal garrison commander Col. Alhadji ag Gamou, who spoke by telephone from Kidal.
The source in Kidal said the rebels have been pressing Ag Gamou to join their cause for two days, but that Ag Gamou was refusing.
The Niger source said Ag Gamou wants safe passage to Gao for soldiers who do not want to join the rebellion and civilians seeking safety.
He said the talks are taking place between Ag Gamou, Col. Didier ag Alsherif of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and Iyag ag Ghali, leader of the Ansar Dine or Defenders of the Faith, whose calls to impose Islamic sharia law in northern Mali have strained the rebel alliance.
Fighting in the north has been complicated by the resurgence of tribal-based militias that the rebels charge are being armed and paid by the government.
A battle erupted Sunday between the Ganda Izo militia and MNLA forces, sources in Niger and Mali confirmed. The Niger government source said militia leader Amadou Seydou Diallo was killed. In Mali, militia spokesman Nouhoum Toure said both sides took heavy losses but he could not confirm reports of Diallo's death.
Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, some displaced within Mali others to neighboring countries. Their precarious situation comes as aid agencies are warning that millions face starvation in the region after successive droughts and bad harvests.
Associated Press writers Baba Ahmed and Martin Vogl contributed to this report from Bamako, Mali.