BAMAKO (Reuters) - Tuareg-led insurgents on Friday denied allegations by Mali’s government that al Qaeda gunmen were fighting alongside them in the north of the country.
The rebels are seeking independence for their desert homeland and have no ideological links with al Qaeda, but analysts say rebels, Islamists and smugglers are increasingly opportunistic in their cooperation in the lawless zone.
A military source said clashes had broken out in Tessalit, near the border with Algeria, on Friday, a day after the rebels, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), opened up a third front in the west. There were reports of dozens of dead from fighting elsewhere as well.
Mali’s defence ministry issued a statement late on Thursday saying the MNLA and fighters from AQIM, al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, jointly attacked the town of Aguelhoc this week, where dozens of Malian soldiers were reported killed.
The statement gave no further details but several local sources, who asked not to be named, have also made links between the MNLA rebels and Islamists.
“The entry of the jihadists and their expertise in this type of conflict ... is very important,” said one source with knowledge of the groups operating in the region. “With this collaboration, AQIM will be able to stock up on weapons.”
The rebels have confirmed the attack on Aguelhoc, but, Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a spokesman for the MNLA, denied any links with the other groups mentioned by the ministry.
“This is the usual rhetoric. They are losing ground so now they are trying link us to the terrorists. But everyone knows that is not true. This has never been the case,” the Europe-based spokesman told Reuters by telephone.
The MNLA was formed late last year, bringing together Malian Tuareg who long fought in the ranks of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan army, remnants of previous Tuareg rebellions and other activists complaining of underdevelopment in Mali’s remote desert north.
The latest rebellion in the north, simmering with frustrations for decades, has been spurred on by the return of heavily armed Tuareg who fought in Libya’s army and added to the region’s security woes.
A Malian military source said new clashes had broken out in Tessalit near the Algerian border after a week of relative calm.
“The town has been coming under fire since this morning. They are shooting from far away and the army is firing back.”
Acharatoumane could not immediately comment on that fighting but said the rebels had planned to attack as Algerian military trainers working with the Malians, whom they had not wanted to involve in the conflict, had been withdrawn.