Dozens killed as jihadist groups clash in eastern Mali

BAMAKO, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Dozens of civilians have been killed and hundreds displaced over several days of heavy fighting between rival Islamist groups in Mali's restive east, local government officials said on Thursday.

Jihadists linked to Islamic State have been clashing with local al Qaeda affiliates over territory in the regions of Gao and Menaka, where insurgents have been waging offensives over the past decade.

The militants have been advancing in the east since France and several other European nations decided to pull their troops following disagreements with the military government.

Particularly violent clashes broke out this week, exacerbating a conflict that has already has killed thousands and displaced more than 2.7 million across the Sahel, according to the United Nations.

"Battles resumed mainly in Ansongo [Gao region] and other districts... There are deaths, many deaths," said Bajan Ag Hamatou, a former MP who is now a member of the transitional council set up after the military seized power in a 2020 coup.

At least 100 people have been killed, 40 of them in Ansongo two days ago, Hamatou told Reuters on Thursday.

Menaka mayor Nanout Kotia confirmed via telephone that fighting had resumed, but did not give a death toll.

Fahad Ag Almahmoud, head of a pro-government militia, said on Twitter that between 200 and 300 civilians were massacred on Dec. 4.

Reuters was not able to confirm the accounts of fighting or the figures independently.

The mayor of the rural commune of N'Tillit in Gao asked authorities to help with 583 households displaced by "deadly fighting" on Dec. 3, in a letter seen by Reuters.

Mali has faced instability since 2012, when Islamist militants hijacked a Tuareg rebellion in the north.

France intervened to help push them out in 2013, but the militants have since regrouped and spread across the Sahel and further south towards coastal West African states despite the presence of foreign forces.

Several European and African nations announced they would withdraw troops from Mali this year, accusing the junta of collaborating with Russian mercenaries - an accusation both Russia and the junta deny.

Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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