KIDAL, Mali, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Heavy weapons fire rang out in and around the northern Malian town of Kidal overnight, residents said on Saturday, in a sign that a Tuareg-led rebellion was nearing the most significant target yet in two weeks of clashes.
A spokesman for the MNLA rebels, who say they are fighting for independence in Mali’s north, said they had launched an attack to seize the town but Malian officials said the weapons fire was coming from local army units only.
The rebels, a combination of veteran Tuareg insurgents and returnees from Libya’s conflict, have launched attacks on three fronts in Mali’s largely desert north but Kidal is the most significant town yet to be threatened.
A Reuters journalist in the town said he had heard heavy weapons fire but was unable to say who was firing.
“I heard the firing of heavy weapons and saw bright lights in the sky,” said Sidi Aly Tamboura, another resident.
Malian military sources in Kidal and the capital, Bamako, said army units were firing their weapons to try and dissuade a rebel attack after rumours spread that the MNLA would strike on Saturday.
But a Europe-based spokesman for the the rebels said they attack had already begun. “We have attaked,” said Hama Ag Sid’Ahmed. “We will take the two military camps and occupy the town.”
The rebels say they are fighting to secure the independence of Azawad, a zone that takes in Mali’s three northern regions, one of which is Kidal. The government has rejected these claims and accused the rebels of atrocities and collaborating with al Qaeda, a charge rejected by the MNLA. (Reporting by Adama Diarra; Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis Editing by Maria Golovnina)