Malian rebels seize key border town, more displaced

BAMAKO Wed Feb 8, 2012 4:29pm EST

BAMAKO Feb 8 (Reuters) - Northern Malian rebels have seized the strategic border town of Tinzawatene after two days of fighting forced government troops to withdraw into Algeria, rebel and government officials said on Wednesday.

The fighting in the remote northeastern town comes as aid agencies said some 50,000 Malians have been forced from their homes in three weeks of desert clashes by a rebel force bolstered by Malians returning from Libya's conflict.

The seizure of Tinzawatene by the Tuareg-led MNLA rebels, who say they are fighting to create an independent state in Mali's desert north, is a significant gain as it gives them control of a key transit and smuggling point in the desert.

"It is true, the army has withdrawn from the (Tinzawatene) camp and pulled back onto the Algerian side of the border, but it was a strategic retreat," a Malian defence ministry source told Reuters, asking not to be named.

Hama Ag Sid'Ahmed, a spokesman for the rebels, said that the town's two military camps were under their control and several armoured vehicles and other military vehicles had been seized.

One rebel had been killed and another injured in the fighting, Ag Sid'Ahmed said.

The MNLA rebels have pushed south on three fronts since fighting erupted in mid January.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said on Wednesday that the number of Malians displaced within the country had risen to 30,000. Another 15,000 have crossed into Niger, it said.

Mauritanian aid officials have said at least 5,000 Malians have crossed westwards over the shared border.

Before the rebellion started, northern Mali was already awash with smugglers and home to a small but powerful group of fighters linked to al Qaeda. (Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; writing and additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar; editing by Andrew Roche)

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