Malian army helicopters on Tuesday bombed a rebel Tuareg position, forcing them to withdraw after an attempt to seize control of the north-eastern town of Menaka, military sources said Tuesday.
« We arrested four armed bandits during our counter-attack. Some are lightly wounded, » said Lieutenant Habib Togola of the Malian army.
« We are in control of the town and reinforcements are making their way to the town. »
Several sources reported the rebels had withdrawn to a forested area some two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the town.
« An army helicopter bombed the armed bandits’ position in Menaka. Two of their vehicles have been destroyed by fire, » said a military source based in Gao, a town to the west of Menaka which hosts the regional military headquarters.
« They (the rebels) fled. Reinforcements are being sent in. »
A local government official said: « Shooting has died down. It appears the Tuareg rebels have withdrawn not far from the town. »
Telephone communications had partially resumed after earlier being cut off by the rebels, a resident told AFP.
Fighting erupted in the morning between government forces and the Tuareg who were vying for control of the town situated near the Niger border.
The resident earlier told AFP that the rebels were « firing from afar and the Malian army is shooting back ».
The Malian army last week boosted its presence in the north, stationing hundreds of men in Tinzawaten, a town near the Algerian border.
The troops passed through the mountainous region of Zackac where rebel Tuareg forces were living, prompting them to abandon their positions and split into three groups.
« It is one of these groups which attacked Menaka. We cannot rule out that other groups will attack other towns, » the local official warned.
Hundreds of armed Malian Tuareg recently returned from Libya where they fought alongside troops of ousted leader Moamer Kadhafi.
Their return to the region has raised fears over greater instability in the troubled desert region.
Some returnees have accepted a process of integration offered by President Amadou Toumani Toure, but others have retreated into the desert mountains, their intentions unknown.
A nomadic community of some 1.5 million people, Tuareg of various tribes are scattered between Niger, Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso.
Mali and Niger experienced uprisings as the Tuareg fought for recognition of their identity and an independent state in the 1960s, 1990s and early 2000 with a resurgence between 2006 and 2009.
After these rebellions many fighters left for Libya where they were integrated into Kadhafi’s security forces. After his fall they returned to northern Mali, particularly the Azawad region between Timbuktu and Kidal.
The political wing of the rebel Tuareg is represented by the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA). However no particular figure speaks for the fighters on the ground.
« The already fragile Sahel-Sahara band must manage the return of soldiers from Libya and the spread of war weapons, » Toure said in a New Year’s address to the nation.
The return of the rebels has added to northern Mali’s woes as the region battles Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which has carried out many attacks on troops, kidnappings of Westerners and various trafficking operations, including drugs.
Twelve Europeans are being held hostage in the Sahel strip of northwest African nations on the southern edge of the Sahara by AQIM and a new splinter group calling itself the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
As two paramilitary brigades and military equipment were deployed to the north last week, Security Minister Sadjo Gassama promised that the state would be more present in the troubled area.
« The government will use all necessary resources to secure people and goods in northern Mali, » he told journalists.
By Serge Daniel