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Malian army advances on rebels

BAMAKO: Mali’s army said yesterday it clashed with rebels along the front line in northern area and seized an important town, but the insurgents denied the claim.
The fighting is the first major attempt by government forces to push back the insurgents since they seized the north, including the fabled desert city of Timbuktu, last year and could squash hopes of peace talks.
Western and regional leaders fear the alliance of Al-Qaeda-linked rebels could use the vast desert zone as a launchpad to stage international attacks, and are planning a UN-backed military intervention.
Mali’s army attacked rebel positions in Douentza, a gateway town between Mali’s rebel-held north and government-held south that had been in the hands of the militants since September.
“The army has retaken Douentza, we just had confirmation that the rebels have withdrawn following the clash,” an officer at the military junta headquarters told Reuters yesterday.
But a spokesman for the rebels said they were still in the town and were also fighting Mali troops elsewhere in the region.
It was not immediately possible to verify independently which side was controlling Douentza. A resident said that, though the rebels withdrew after heavy fighting, the army was not inside the town.
Another resident, who also requested anonymity, told Reuters that two vehicles carrying rebels were still in the town.
Clashes involving heavy artillery were also reported in other localities in the Mopti region and in Konna, a senior army officer at the Mali Defence Ministry said.
The renewed fighting could quash hopes of a breakthrough at peace talks between the Malian government, the rebels and separatist Tuaregs which were scheduled to start in Burkina Faso yesterday but were postponed until Jan. 21.
Djibril Bassole, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister and regional mediator in the crisis, called on the parties to respect a ceasefire deal agreed on Dec. 4.
Ansar Dine, one of the main rebel factions, said last week it had ended the ceasefire deal because of international plans for a military intervention.
The United Nations has given the green light for an African-led military campaign to retake Mali’s north, though logistical and other problems mean that is unlikely to start before September.
Once an example of democracy and development in turbulent West Africa, Mali was plunged into crisis by a March 2012 coup which allowed Tuareg rebels to seize the country’s north, demanding an independent homeland, but their rebellion was hijacked by Al-Qaeda-linked militants.