(Adds rebel reaction, army quotes)
BAMAKO, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Mali’s military said on Thursday its armed forces had killed 45 gunmen and lost two soldiers in attacks on two towns in the north of the country this week, a toll immediately rejected by a spokesman for the Tuareg-led rebels.
The toll was the first to be given for the clashes in Aguelhok and Tessalit, by the border with Algeria, which started on Wednesday after earlier fighting further south on Tuesday killed several others.
This week’s fighting ended several years of fragile peace in Mali’s desert north and appear to confirm fears that Libya’s war would bring instability to its southern neighbours as nomadic gunmen previously employed by the Libyan army return home.
“Our armed forces have bravely beaten back the attacks of the former Libyan fighters and the (Tuareg) MNLA rebels,” the armed forces said in a statement read on state media.
The armed forces said eight soldiers and “many” rebels were wounded in the fighting, to the north of the earlier, separate clashes around Menaka.
However, a spokesman for the rebels, who are fighting under the name the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), rejected the figures being given by Mali.
“There were lots of losses on the Malian side,” Moussa Ag Acharatoumane told Reuters by telephone, giving a figure of 30-40 dead.
Acharatoumane said that Aguelhok was under rebel control while operations had been suspended in Tessalit to allow Algerian soldiers, who had been helping the Malians there, to leave.
The MNLA, which includes Malian Tuareg fighters who were hired to fight for many years in the ranks of Muammar Gaddafi’s army, says it is fighting for independence for the Tuareg homeland of Azawad in the Sahara. (Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, Adama Diarra in Kidal; writing by David Lewis; editing by David Stamp)