BAMAKO Fighting has broken out in northern Mali between Tuareg separatists and local Arab-led gunmen, only days after the African country won a $4.2 billion aid pledge to help it recover from a conflict with Islamists affiliated to al Qaeda.
Rebel and military sources both confirmed the clashes, although they differed over precisely which groups were involved.
The violence highlights how pockets of fighters who escaped a four-month French-led offensive against the al Qaeda-linked militants in the north are undermining efforts to restore state authority ahead of a presidential election set for July 28. France said this week the 'terrorists' had been defeated.
The MNLA, a Tuareg rebel group, said its forces were attacked in the town of Anefis by a column of Islamist fighters on Friday. Its Paris-based spokesman, Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, said fighting continued on Saturday morning, with two of the group's fighters and at least seven Islamists killed so far.
The MNLA said it was fighting MUJWA, an Islamist group that occupied the town of Gao for months until earlier this year and has launched a series of guerrilla-style counter-attacks on the town since it was retaken in the French offensive.
A Malian army officer, who asked not to be named, confirmed there had been heavy fighting, likely stemming from long-standing rivalries between Tuareg and Arab communities that make up northern Mali's array of armed groups.
However he said the clashes were between the MNLA and the MAA, a group made up of Malian Arabs based north of Timbuktu. It was not possible to independently confirm the information.
In a sign of the outside world's concern about stability in Mali, international donors promised 3.25 billion euros ($4.22 billion) on Wednesday to help the country recover and prevent a resurgence by the Islamist rebels.
French President Francois Hollande dismissed comparisons between Mali and Afghanistan, which provided safe haven to al Qaeda when it was preparing the September 11 attacks and is still fighting a Taliban insurgency 12 years later.
"In Mali, the terrorists have been beaten. I don't say there are none left, I don't say there is no risk, but there is no longer any fighting," Hollande said.
The Tuareg MNLA launched a rebellion in January last year, citing years of marginalization by the government as justification for carving out an independent desert state from Mali's north.
It initially fought alongside a mix of al Qaeda-linked Islamist forces seeking to impose Islamic law on Mali's north, and the uneasy coalition swept aside government troops in March 2012.
The MNLA was later sidelined by the better armed Islamists, but has now taken advantage of the French offensive to re-occupy several northern towns it had lost to them. Having watered down independence claims, it is demanding talks with the government over a degree of autonomy.
French forces are reducing their numbers and are due to hand over security responsibilities to a United Nations peacekeeping mission that will be rolled out in July.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Editing by Joe Bavier and Mark Trevelyan)