October 17, 2010 / 4:29 PM / 9 years ago

Ex-rebels clash with drug smugglers in Mali desert

BAMAKO, Oct 17 (Reuters) - About 12 people were killed when former Tuareg rebels backed by Malian government forces clashed with heavily armed drug smugglers ferrying cocaine across the Sahara desert, Malian officials said on Sunday.

Several smugglers were captured in the clash, which took place on Thursday about 100 km (60 miles) from the town of Kidal in northern Mali, a local government official said.

“Drug traffickers transporting cocaine from Morocco towards Egypt clashed with (former Tuareg rebel leader Ibrahim Ag) Bahanga and his men, who were given material support by the army,” said the official, asking not to be named.

“About a dozen” people died in the clash and a number of traffickers were arrested, the official said. Another official confirmed the incident but could give no further details.

Nomadic Tuareg rebels took up arms in northern Mali in 2007 to fight for a greater share of the country’s resources. A peace deal ended that conflict, but drug smugglers and Islamists still operate in the desert, ignoring national borders.

Islamists have risen to prominence over the last year with a string of kidnappings and have received millions of dollars in ransom payments, security sources say.

The al Qaeda-linked Islamist group known as AQIM is currently holding seven foreigners, five of them French citizens, who it kidnapped from a uranium-mining town in neighbouring Niger.

Countries in the Sahel-Sahara region are finding it difficult to overcome their strained relations and unite in the fight against AQIM, and the former Tuareg rebels have said they are ready to take on the Islamists for the government.

No formal agreements have been reached since they made the offer but the latest clash shows that there is some cooperation with the Malian armed forces on the ground.

Under the peace deal that ended their conflict with the Malian army, some Tuareg rebels were due to be integrated into army units to provide security for the north. (Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo, writing by David Lewis; editing by Tim Pearce)

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