DAKAR, Senegal – Fighters from one of the al-Qaida-linked rebel groups controlling northern Mali on Friday attacked a position held by a secular rebel group, in the first clash between the two sides since the Islamists seized the territory in June, according to local officials and a rebel spokesman.
The fighting, which began at around 10 a.m. local time near the northern locality of Ansongo, comes as the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or NMLA, held its first mediation session with the Islamists in the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso.
Oumar Ould Hamaha, spokesman for Islamist group MUJAO, said that the clash started Friday morning around 50 to 65 kilometers (30 to 40 miles) from Ansongo, a town on the road between the northern cities of Gao, controlled by MUJAO, and Menaka. The NMLA fled to Menaka after the Islamists pushed them out of the main cities in northern Mali in June.
"I confirm that they are fighting, yes of course," said Hamaha, who was reached by telephone while on patrol in northern Mali. "It was the NMLA that started it. They kidnapped 12 to 13 of our guys. ... It's they that started it and forced us to riposte. The fighting began this morning. And we have now encircled the area of Menaka. We burned their vehicles. We are in the process of strangling them."
Reached in Paris, a spokesman for the NMLA, Moussa Ag Assarid said that he had heard reports of fighting between the two sides near Ansongo. But he denied that MUJAO had gotten as far as Menaka, the NMLA's main base in Mali.
Djibril Moussa Diallo, the village chief of Fafa, located not far from the fighting, said that MUJAO sent dozens of fighters overnight to flush out the NMLA.
In April, several rebel groups including the NMLA and MUJAO, seized the main towns in northern Mali, after an army mutiny and subsequent coup in the capital, Bamako. The NMLA planted their multi-hued flag at the main government buildings and declared the independence of a new Tuareg nation, which they called "Azawad."
But within weeks the Islamist rebel factions that had helped take the north began tearing down the NMLA flags and planting their own, ominous black flag. In a matter of days in June, the Islamists attacked the NMLA positions, pushing them out of the three major cities, Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. The secular NMLA rebels regrouped in Menaka, a tiny locality situated in the country's far east, near the border with Niger.
"You know that after the attack on Gao, and the other cities, the NMLA and MUJAO no longer got along," explained Diallo, the mayor of Fafa. "So the NMLA was pushed back to Menaka in the far east. That became their zone of influence. But ever since the feast of Tabaski (in late October), MUJAO has been threatening that they will attack Menaka. And then yesterday, there was a small clash. MUJAO pulled back and asked for reinforcements. They brought troops in from Bourem, from Gao, from Timbuktu and today there were violent clashes," he said. "MUJAO says that they are 'kafirs' (infidels). They say they are people who don't want to apply Shariah."
Mali, a landlocked nation of 15.4 million people, has always been among Africa's poorest, but until this spring, it was also considered an example of democracy and stability. Since the coup in March, and the subsequent rebel invasion, it has become the continent's latest failed state.
At the United Nations later this month, western nations will be discussing a military intervention plan put forward by the countries bordering Mali. The plan, which was approved this week by the African Union, calls for 3,300 troops to press a ground assault to take back the north. The land attack is expected to be preceded by strategic air strikes over the three major towns in the north, with the aim of taking out the leadership of MUJAO, and its sister Islamist organization, Ansar Dine.
Also on Friday, a delegation from Ansar Dine met with representatives of the NMLA in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The mediation effort sponsored by Burkina's President Blaise Compaore is considered a last-ditch effort before the military incursion.
After the two sides met, Burkina's Foreign Affairs Minister Djibril Bassole told reporters: "(This) dialogue will not replace the military intervention, and the military intervention will not replace dialogue. We need to take care to combine a diplomatic process, with a military process in order to stamp out the terrorist groups that are now threatening this process, and the region," he said.
Unlike Ansar Dine, MUJAO has refused to take part in the negotiations, with Hamaha saying that theirs is a holy war, aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate.
Associated Press writer Brahima Ouedraogo contributed to this report from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.