Mali rebel groups 'clash in Kidal'

Refugees at UN refugee camp north of Niamey, Niger
Image caption An estimated 300,000 people have fled northern Mali since the rebels seized power

Two rebel groups that seized northern Mali two months ago have clashed following protests in the town of Kidal, witnesses say.

A source told the BBC that fighting broke out between Tuareg MNLA rebels and the Ansar Dine Islamist group on the third day of protests in the town.

Last month, the two groups agreed to merge and turn their vast northern territory into an Islamist state.

The groups seized the territory in March following a coup in Mali.

Earlier this week, a Kidal resident told the BBC that 500 people had protested over the imposition of Islamic Sharia law.

It is estimated that more than 300,000 people have fled northern Mali since the rebels took the territory.

Regional bloc Ecowas has said it will send 3,000 troops to Mali to help the country reclaim its northern territory, but no timetable has been set.

Correspondents say Thursday night's fighting in Kidal is the first serious confrontation between the two rebel groups.

"The crisis is becoming tribal," said Malian journalist Tiegoum Boubeye Maiga, quoted by AFP news agency.

"After having fought the Malian army together... the two groups are now fighting on a tribal basis. It is very dangerous."

Sources told the BBC that two people had died in Thursday's fighting. Calm had returned by Friday, witnesses said.

In another development, residents of Timbuktu said they had formed an armed group to drive out Islamists currently in control of the far northern town, AFP reported.

Hamidou Maiga, a former army officer, said that the Patriots' Resistance Movement for the Liberation of Timbuktu opposes the secession of northern Mali and "will engage in military action against the invaders until they leave".

The instability of Mali has caused alarm across the region.

The president of neighbouring Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, told the news channel France 24 on Thursday that jihadists from Afghanistan and Pakistan were training militant groups inside northern Mali.

The MNLA is a secular group but Ansar Dine has ties to al-Qaeda.

Malian army officer Amadou Sanogo seized power in March after claiming the then president, Amadou Toumani Toure, was not doing enough to quash the rebellion in the north.

He was forced to step down three weeks later but is thought to wield power behind the scenes.

Mali's interim President, Dioncounda Traore, is recovering from surgery in a Paris hospital after being beaten unconscious in his office by protesters who supported the coup.