BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Separatist rebels in northern Mali said they are holding 19 soldiers from the national army following recent fighting, further aggravating tensions in the region after nearly a month of heightened violence.
"We captured 19 Malian soldiers during fighting last Friday. In the same fighting, we recorded one injury on our side," said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a spokesman for the Coordination of Azawad Movements, a separatist coalition.
The clash occurred in the town of Tessit, in the northern Gao region.
Supporters of the mostly Tuareg rebels used Facebook and Twitter to distribute photos of men in Malian army uniforms who were purported to be the captured soldiers. This could not be independently verified.
A Malian defense official confirmed on Sunday that some soldiers were in rebel custody but would not say how many.
"The terrorists are holding our soldiers, but I don't want to enter into a war of numbers so I don't want to tell you the number of soldiers," said the official, Col. Diarran Kone, an adviser with Mali's defense ministry.
Tuareg rebels took over Mali's north in 2012 before Islamic extremists hijacked the offensive, prompting a French-led military intervention in 2013 which pushed the extremists from the major cities and towns in the north.
But northern Mali remains insecure, with the latest round of violence dating back to April 27, when separatists say armed groups allied with the military took over the Tuareg-held town of Menaka. The coalition of separatists then launched attacks in central and northern Mali and the fighting has killed at least 40 people, according to government figures.
On Friday, the Coordination of Azawad Movements said Malian soldiers publicly killed nine residents of the northern village of Tin Hama, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Menaka.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali said an investigation team had been deployed to "establish the facts" behind the allegations.
In a statement Saturday, the United States State Department condemned the recent violence in northern Mali, citing the reported Tin Hama killings.