BAMAKO, March 5 (Reuters) - Malian army units trying to resupply the remote northern garrison of Tessalit, besieged for weeks by rebels, have been beaten back after days of heavy fighting, rebel, army and local officials said on Monday.
Fighting over Tessalit has been fierce as the town is close to the border with Algeria and losing it to rebels fighting for an independent north would leave Malian government forces with little presence in the remote border region.
“The convoy has pulled back,” said a senior member of northern Mali’s Arab community, referring to three units trying to punch their way into Tessalit, where hundreds of soldiers and civilians are cut off from the rest of the country.
Two Malian military sources also confirmed the pull-back but gave no casualty toll. “We are going to have to reorganise our troops,” said one of the sources, asking not to be named.
The source added that the Tuareg-led MNLA fighters had received reinforcements from Chad, Algeria and Nigeria but did not give further details.
The MNLA have been bolstered by heavily armed Malian Tuareg returning from fighting alongside pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya. The clashes have added a new layer of insecurity to a zone awash with smugglers and plagued by fighters linked to al Qaeda.
Dozens of people have been reported killed and some 120,000 have fled their homes since the rebels launched a push south in mid-January.
Mali’s government issued a statement confirming heavy fighting on Sunday but gave no details on the convoy’s status.
It repeated charges that the MNLA rebels were fighting alongside drug dealers, al Qaeda factions and other Islamists. The rebels have repeatedly denied the charge.
A U.S. embassy spokeswoman in Bamako said a U.S. aircraft had supplied food and water to Tessalit on Feb. 14 but no further action had been taken. “It was a compassionate act aimed at civilian populations,” she said. There has been speculation there may have been U.S. air support for the government forces.
Independent information is virtually impossible to come by in the desert zones as the two sides give conflicting tolls and civilians have abandoned the area.
Hama Ag Sid‘Ahmed, a spokesman for the rebellion, said the rebels had seized two trucks, six vehicles mounted with 12.7 mm machineguns and two armoured personnel carriers from the government forces.
“The three colonels (in charge of the units) have been dispersed in the direction of Gao (to the south),” he said. (Reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by David Lewis; editing by Tim Pearce)