Heavy casualties have been reported in clashes between Malian forces and Tuareg rebels near the northern town of Tessalit in the past two days, Malian military sources said on Thursday.
The sources said a Malian army convoy, backed by helicopter gunships, was trying to break through rebel positions and take supplies and reinforcements to a besieged military base about 7km outside Tessalit when it came under attack.
“What can be said is that there have been more than 100 dead [on the rebel side] and 50 were taken as prisoners,” one of the sources, a senior military officer at the Malian defense ministry, said on condition of anonymity.
The officer said more than 30 rebel vehicles were destroyed, while the army, which was using mainly helicopters in the battle, suffered two losses.
Dozens have been reported killed and thousands of civilians forced from their homes since the Tuareg rebels, who say they are fighting to create an independent north, boosted by ethnic allies who returned to Mali after fighting for former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, started attacking towns and army bases last month.
Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a spokesman for the rebels, confirmed that fierce battles had taken place near Tessalit, but denied the rebels had suffered any losses.
“There was violent clashes near Tessalit as a convoy of the Malian army was trying to reach Tessalit from Kidal, but it was intercepted by our men. They tried again through another route, but we stopped them,” Acharatoumane said.
“So effectively, there was some violent fighting, but we did not -record any deaths, just about three wounded,” he said by telephone from Europe.
Another military source at the Malian Ministry of Defense said the death toll was more than 100 on the rebel side, with another 100 taken prisoner, while 30 rebel vehicles had been destroyed.
It has so far been difficult to independently verify the casualty figures.
Mali was seeking the backing of regional leaders from the Economic Community of West African States when they began a meeting in Nigeria on Thursday, with the situation in northern Mali one of the items on their agenda, a diplomatic source said.