World Bulletin / News Desk
Pro-autonomy Tuareg rebels in Mali said on Tuesday they had controlled the town of Menaka, extending their control of the remote northeast as they position for talks with the government.
It was not possible to independently verify whether MNLA fighters had entered Menaka, some 250 km (156 miles) south of their stronghold of Kidal. Menaka was a cradle of the MNLA's separatist uprising last year that took over northern Mali.
Malian military officials have accused the MNLA of seeking to exaggerate its presence in the north to strengthen its hand in possible talks with Bamako after a three-week French-led offensive drove the fighters into the far northeast.
"Our forces have entered Menaka," MNLA spokesman Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh told Reuters by telephone from Ouagadougou, the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso.
Ag Assaleh said the MNLA entered Menaka, and Ansar Dine, operating nearby after being driven from the region's main towns, Timbuktu and Gao.
"We took Menaka to make sure the area was secure ... The Malian army do not want to leave Gao," Ag Assaleh said. "Any town which is not secured, we will take it."
Malian military sources said it was possible the MNLA had entered Menaka because Islamist rebels had fled and no other military force was occupying the town, situated some 100 km (60 miles) from the border with Niger.
The MNLA seized control of northern Mali in April, taking advantage of a power vacuum left by a coup in Bamako, but its revolt was eclipsed by a loose alliance of Islamists.
The MNLA says it has retaken control of Kidal and small towns around the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where many Islamists are believed to be hiding near the Algeria border.
"The MNLA's army is in control of the whole region around Kidal," said Albakay ag Ahmed, spokesman for the movement in that town. "It is here in Kidal, in Tessalit, in Aguelhok."
France, which says it has established close links with Tuareg rebels on the ground, sent special forces to seize Kidal's airport a week ago but has kept a low profile in the town. MNLA fighters drove around Kidal in pick-up trucks on Tuesday with their green, red, yellow and black flag flying.
"Azawad yesterday, Azawad today, Azawad always," shouted one group of young fighters, their hands joined in a sign of victory, using the rebels' name for northern Mali.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM-TV in Paris that Kidal was under control of French, African, and Chadian forces. He said the French troops had "functional relations" with the MNLA", who he described as "facilitators."
A French diplomatic source said France's army, already thinly stretched across the vast desert region, was coordinating its actions with the MNLA in the north.
"We're giving them tasks to carry out and it's going pretty well at the moment," said the source in Paris, adding that one of the challenges was understanding who were the leaders of the movement. "They have soldiers, weapons - more than we believed."
The MNLA said on Monday its patrols captured two senior Islamist leaders trying to flee to Algeria.
With only 4,000 troops in a region the size of Texas, France's military has appealed for urgent reinforcement from a U.N.-backed African force still being deployed.
Troops from neighbouring Niger and Chad have been backing the French in their operations against the Islamist fighters.Last Mod: 06 Şubat 2013, 10:28