Mali army clashes with separatist MNLA rebels

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Media captionThe BBC's Thomas Fessy: "Hundreds of troops have been sent to the far north"

Malian soldiers have clashed with secular separatist Tuareg fighters near the northern town of Kidal, army and rebel spokesmen have told the BBC.

Kidal has been held by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) since February, when Islamist militants fled the city.

The MNLA was allied to the Islamist groups when they seized control of the north together in April 2012.

But it fell out with them and backed a French-led offensive to oust them.

It is the first time the Malian army has fought against the Tuareg separatists since France intervened militarily in January.

Correspondents say the Malian army is keen to make sure Kidal, which is in the far north of Mali, near the Algerian border, is under full government control before the presidential election on 28 July.

The separatists have said they will not allow the Malian authorities into Kidal ahead of the poll.

The BBC's West Africa correspondent, Thomas Fessy, says the push by the Malian army came after talks had resumed between the MNLA and the transitional authorities in neighbouring Burkina Faso.

France has so far kept the Malian army away from Kidal fearing that clashes with the MNLA could spark ethnic attacks not only in that city, but throughout northern Mali, he adds.

'Heavy weapons'

Army spokesman Col Souleymane Maiga told the BBC that soldiers had been fighting "armed groups" and "terrorists" about 120km (74 miles) south-west of Kidal, near the village of Anefis.

He said troops were carrying out a patrol when they were attacked - and had subsequently captured the village.

Earlier, the mayor of Anefis, Izga Ag Sidi, told the Associated Press news agency that heavy fighting had begun at 06:30 local time (06:30 GMT).

MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatoumane insisted that the soldiers had attacked first.

The unexpected assault had forced the MNLA fighters to pull out of Anefis and regroup in the surrounding mountains, he told the BBC from Paris.

At least two fighters had been killed in the clashes and an unknown number of others wounded, he said.

There had also been fighting between the two sides in Amassine, about 100km (62 miles) west of Kidal, he added.

Our correspondent says it is unclear whether France, which has maintained a presence at Kidal airport, will allow the fighting between army and MNLA continue.

Last week, there were protests in the northern city of Gao, in which France was accused of favouring the minority ethnic Tuareg group by allowing the continued occupation of Kidal.

France has begun to withdraw some of its 4,000 troops from Mali after driving Islamist groups from the main towns and cities of the north.

It plans to gradually hand over to the Malian army and a UN peacekeeping force before presidential and parliamentary elections are held.

The Tuareg in Mali say they face discrimination because they are light-skinned and have been neglected by the government in far-off Bamako.

The MNLA has watered down its demand for independence, saying it will settle, as a first step, for autonomy.

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