BAMAKO (Reuters) - Up to three fighters from the MNLA Tuareg separatist group were killed in a clash with the Malian army in the north of the country on Friday, a security source, a U.N. spokesman and a resident said.
Tuareg rebels seized control of the northern town of Kidal and some surrounding areas after a French-led military offensive in January drove out Islamist militants who had occupied northern Mali.
A Malian army official said MNLA fighters attacked a joint patrol of Malian and U.N. troops near the town of Menaka early on Friday.
"The MNLA fighters fired first. The patrol returned fire. There were up to three killed among the MNLA," the official in Gao - northern Mali's biggest city - told Reuters by phone, requesting not to be identified. He did not say whether there were any Malian army casualties.
Olivier Salgado, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Mali, confirmed the incident.
"There was at least one death on the MNLA side. Two suspects were arrested and one vehicle with arms on board was seized," Salgado told Reuters by phone from the capital Bamako, saying it was possible more than one Tuareg fighter was killed. He said the circumstances of the incident were being investigated.
Menaka resident Aliou Chabane, said the army was ambushed while on its way to respond to an earlier MNLA attack on a truck transporting civilians.
"MNLA opened fire on the army who retaliated. Three MNLA fighters were killed," Chabane said.
Menaka is about 400km (248 miles) south of Kidal, but still in Mali's vast desert north.
Mali imploded last year when the Tuareg rebels took up arms in the north, triggering a coup in the capital Bamako.
Islamists took advantage of the chaos and seized the north, stoking fears in the West that the zone would become a launch pad for militant attacks and a safe haven for criminal gangs operating alongside the various rebel groups.
The U.N. force in Mali, known as MINUSMA, is supposed to take over from an African mission and French forces and has the job of stabilizing the country.
(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Pravin Char)