BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The Mali army attacked Islamist rebels with heavy weapons in the center of the country which divides the insurgent-held north and the government-controlled south, government officials said Thursday.
The army attacked the rebel positions north of Konna, about 700 kilometers (435 miles) northeast of the capital, Bamako, said Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, communications adviser for the Ministry of Defense, to The Associated Press.
The heavy weapons fire between the two sides began around 5 p.m. (1700 GMT) Wednesday and lasted for several hours, said Kone.
The rebels said they repelled the attack and captured some army soldiers.
"The soldiers from the Malian army advanced on us. We fired at them and pushed until they returned to the town of Konna. We took prisoners from the Malian army, but I cannot tell you how many exactly," said Sanda Abu Mohamed, spokesman for the Ansar Dine rebels, reached by phone in Timbuktu. Ansar Dine did not suffer any casualties, he said.
Since April the Islamist rebels have occupied the vast desert of northern Mali, an area the size of France. The Islamists took advantage of a power vacuum in Mali following a March coup that overthrew the democratically elected president.
Konna, where the fighting took place Thursday in central Mali, is near the edge of the government-controlled territory. The rebels had recently moved toward Konna, but the army is fighting to hold the town.
The Islamist rebels — a coalition of three groups including Ansar Dine, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO — have been implementing a strict version of Islamic law in the north, carrying out public executions, amputations and whippings.
The United Nations Security Council has authorized military action to help the government regain control of the north, but says there must first be political progress made following the military coup last year.