BAMAKO Malian troops seized a village after heavy fighting with Tuareg separatists on Wednesday and are advancing towards the town of Kidal, the last rebel stronghold, the army said.
It was the first combat between the MNLA separatists and the Malian army since a French-led military offensive launched in January against Islamists in northern Mali.
The French campaign ended the 10-month domination of the desert region by al Qaeda-linked groups but left the Tuareg rebels in control of Kidal.
Mali's interim government accused the MNLA of attacking and seizing non-Tuaregs in Kidal on Monday. The army has said it will retake the town before a national election in late July.
"Our troops have taken Anefis this morning after intense fighting," army spokesman Colonel Souleymane Maiga said.
Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, Paris-based spokesman for the MNLA, said in a statement there was fighting between the Malian forces and MNLA fighters in Anefis but did not provide further details.
Another army officer, who asked not to be identified, said the rebel fighters had abandoned their vehicles and fled Anefis, heading towards Kidal.
A local aid worker in Kidal told Reuters by telephone that the town was deserted and MNLA fighters who had been patrolling the streets had disappeared following news of Anefis' fall.
"We no longer see the MNLA people. Shops, businesses, the market, everything is closed today. We are all staying at home," the resident said, requesting not to be named.
The MNLA has rejected Bamako's calls for it to lay down its weapons, saying it would resist any attempt to retake Kidal. It has said it is open to negotiations with the government if northern Mali's right to self-determination is recognized.
France said it supported the Malian government's efforts to reestablish its presence in the whole of Mali.
"There can only be and should be only one army in Mali and it must be able to be deployed in every part of the country," the French foreign ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
"That is why we call on all armed groups to lay down their weapons and pursue peace talks with Malian authorities," it said.
The MNLA was not targeted by the French offensive and has since been able to retake some areas, including Kidal. But this has strained relations between France and the transitional government in the southern capital, Bamako.
The MNLA rose up early last year, calling for the creation of a Tuareg homeland in northern Mali. It joined forces with al Qaeda-associated fighters and together they overran the north, but the better armed Islamists quickly took control of the rebellion.