BAMAKO — Malian army helicopters on Tuesday bombed a rebel Tuareg position, forcing them to withdraw after an attempt to seize control of the northeastern town of Menaka, military officials said Tuesday.
However the rebels said they had seized two military camps and had only withdrawn temporarily to avoid civilian deaths.
"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Several sources reported the rebels had withdrawn to a forested area some two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the town.
The government later said several rebels and one soldier died in the clashes in and around Menaka, not far from the border with Niger, that lasted several hours.
"On the assailants' side, six vehicles were destroyed, several people died or were wounded, several assailants were taken prisoner; on the Malian side there is one dead," a government statement said.
"This morning at 6:00 am (0600 GMT), the assailants, who included forces that returned from Libya and comprised elements known as the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), attacked the town of Menaka," it said.
Malian armed forces backed by helicopter gunships and the airforce struck back, the statement added.
"They (the rebels) fled. Reinforcements are being sent in," said a military source based in Gao, a town to the west of Menaka which hosts the regional military headquarters.
He denied statements by the rebels that they had captured two military camps in the town, saying they had been evacuated as a precaution before the arrival of the rebels.
A rebel spokesman, Moussa Salam, told AFP: "We are currently in the Menaka military camp, there is no more fighting"
Salam said they had withdrawn "to avoid killing civilians" but had returned.
He said the attack on the town was led by a Tuareg soldier who had recently deserted from the Malian army.
In October three Tuareg officers deserted the army: Colonel Assalath Ag Khabi, advisor to the energy minister, Lieutenant-Colonel Mbarek Ag Akly, who was stationed in western Mali and Commander Hassan Habre, stationed in the north.
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 Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Niger and Mali.
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. However no particular figure speaks for the fighters on the ground.
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.
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