BAMAKO Rebel factions in control of northern Mali traded heavy arms fire in the city of Gao on Wednesday, threatening an uneasy power-sharing deal between Tuareg separatists and al Qaeda-linked militants.
The clashes came a day after at least two people were killed in the town when fighters from the separatist MNLA group broke up a protest march by local youths. Islamist group MUJWA, a splinter group of the area's al Qaeda branch, had sought to intervene between the protesters and the separatists.
"The MNLA and MUJWA are launching rockets at each other between the two markets of the town and the governor's building," Gao resident Sila Askou said by telephone of the governor's premises in which the MNLA has set up headquarters.
"Right now the only people in the streets are the two armed groups fighting each other. Everyone else is staying at home," added Askou.
The northern rebels routed Mali's government army in April, taking over the desert two-thirds of the country in the days that followed a coup in the distant southern capital Bamako.
However, cracks soon appeared in the rebel front. The MNLA has pushed for the creation of an independent state it calls Azawad, a goal which is not backed by fellow Islamist rebels determined to impose Islamic sharia law across all Mali.
The U.N. Security Council has said it would be ready to support military intervention by Mali's neighbors to restore stability in the West African country but has said it needs more details of their plans.
(Reporting by Adama Diarra; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Andrew Heavens)