BAMAKO, March 14 (Reuters) - Mauritania dispatched its top diplomat to neighbouring Mali on Wednesday to counter media reports that it was backing Malian rebels fighting for independence in the desert north.
The Mauritanian foreign minister expressed his country’s support for Mali’s authorities. His visit came as rebel fighters arrived within 135 km (80 miles) of Timbuktu, the capital of one of three northern regions they want to annex to create a new state on the edge of the Sahara.
It was the closest the rebels had got to the town.
Mali’s rebellion, now entering its third month, has seen fighting on three fronts and displaced over 120,000 civilians across the country and into neighbouring countries, exacerbating a regional food crisis.
Mali has not publicly accused Mauritania of supporting the MNLA rebels, but officials have done so in private. Local media have complained that the rebels have been able to operate unhindered out of Mauritania’s east.
“I would like to express ... our readiness, within our means, to provide whatever help might be needed for Mali to get through this situation,” Foreign Minister Hamadi Ould Baba Ould Hamadi said on Malian state television after talks with the nation’s president in Bamako.
A statement issued by President Amadou Toumani Toure’s office added: “(The minister) denied allegations that his country was giving any support to the MNLA armed rebellion.”
Mauritania and Mali have long been at loggerheads on security issues, mainly due to Mauritanian complaints that Mali has failed to deal with al Qaeda-linked fighters based there.
Mauritania this week launched a strike on Islamists just north of Timbuktu but Malian officials and local sources said civilians were hit instead.
Rebels on Mali’s western front, near the border with Mauritania, were unopposed as they entered the towns of Dire and Goundam, southwest of Timbuktu, a government official and sources in the region told Reuters.
It was not immediately clear if the rebels planned to hold the towns or strike and move on, as they have done elsewhere.
Rebels fighting in the far north over the weekend forced Mali’s army to abandon a military camp near Tessalit, dealing the military a severe blow in its efforts to impose its authority on the north.
There is simmering discontent over the underdevelopment of the north but the return of heavily armed Malian Tuareg who fought in Libya’s conflict was the main trigger for the current rebellion. (Reporting by David Lewis and Tiemoko Diallo; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)