BAMAKO (Reuters) - Islamist gunmen fought Tuareg separatist rebels on Monday in a battle for control of the town of Menaka in Mali’s northern desert, close to the border with Niger, both sides said.
The renewed fighting came as African leaders put the finishing touches to an international intervention plan to retake Mali’s north from a patchwork of armed groups who the West suspects of providing a platform for militant attacks.
“The fighting started early this morning and it is ongoing,” said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a France-based spokesman for the independence-seeking MNLA Tuareg group.
“We have not given up on Menaka,” he added.
A spokesman for al Qaeda-linked Islamist group MUJWA said its fighters had already seized control of the town, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Niger border, in clashes that had left many MNLA fighters “dead, wounded, and imprisoned”.
Neither side could give details on casualties.
The MNLA declared an independent Tuareg homeland in April after routing government troops in the wake of a March coup, but it has since lost control of the zone to Islamists and criminal networks.
MNLA and MUJWA had also clashed on Friday, their first bout of fighting in several months, since MUJWA ousted the MNLA from the regional capital Gao in June.
African leaders will this month seek a U.N. mandate to dispatch a mainly West African force of some 4,000 to Mali tasked with rebuilding its army and then backing operations to win back the occupied desert zones.
EU foreign ministers gave basic approval on Monday to send 250 military trainers to help build Malian soldiers up to operational capacity. But, like the United States and former colonial power France, which is the keenest of Western nations for military action, Brussels has ruled out a combat role.
European leaders are growing increasingly anxious that Mali could turn into a platform for militant attacks - even in Europe. France, Spain, Italy and Belgium have indicated willingness to take part in the mission, an EU official said.
Britain and Germany might also participate, though this would depend on finding sufficient French-speaking personnel, diplomats said. Finland and Canada - a non-EU country - have also registered interest, the EU official said.
Foreign ministers asked for the plan to be formally agreed at an EU summit on December 13-14, a statement said.
The international military operation is due to be led by Mali’s own military but will not be ready until sometime next year.
MUJWA has warned that any such intervention would trigger an Iraq-style quagmire in the West African state.
West African mediator Burkina Faso has also been holding talks with MNLA representatives and members of Ansar Dine, another al Qaeda-linked Islamist group occupying parts of Mali’s north, as it seeks to open dialogue with some of the rebels.
Groups that come to a negotiated deal would be spared from the planned African offensive but MUJWA and AQIM - al Qaeda’s North African wing which it operates alongside - are not being considered for talks.
Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis in Dakar, Sebastian Moffett and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Alison Williams