Malian troops in first clash with MNLA rebels since truce

Malian soldiers and Tuaregs near Timbuktu. July 2013 The truce between Malian troops and Tuaregs paved the way for elections

Malian government forces have clashed with separatist Tuareg rebels in the first fighting since the two sides signed a peace accord in June.

The fighting took place near the western town of Lere, close to the Mauritanian border, leaving three soldiers injured.

Both sides have accused the other of provoking the attack.

A Malian army spokesman has warned that such fighting could jeopardise the truce.

A spokesman for the MNLA rebels told the BBC that government soldiers shelled positions that rebels had agreed to occupy under the ceasefire deal.

However, the army says a group of rebels refused to co-operate with an army patrol and opened fire first.

"An army patrol came across some gunmen in four-wheel drives. They refused to follow the army's orders and opened fire," said spokesman Capt Modibo Naman Traore.

He added: "It could throw into question the entire accord. That's the danger here."

Capt Traore said three soldiers suffered minor injuries and were evacuated for treatment.

Reconciliation

The violence comes a week after President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was sworn in.

Under the ceasefire deal, President Keita has 60 days from the naming of his government last Sunday to start talks with the rebels, who want independence for the deserts of northern Mali, which they call Azawad.

Mr Keita has promised national reconciliation and an end to the cycles of uprisings.

The BBC's Thomas Fessy in neighbouring Senegal says the clashes come as a reminder that tension in Mali is still high and that the path to peace will not be easy.

Rebel forces, which included Tuareg separatists and militant Islamists, took advantage of a coup last year to seize the vast north of the country.

France sent more than 4,000 troops in January and together with West African troops regained control of towns and cities, paving the way for elections in July and a run-off between the two main candidates in August.

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