Fierce fighting has broken out in northern Mali with Tuareg rebels saying they have taken control of the town of Bamba from the army.
It comes after the separatist fighters said they had killed more than 80 soldiers in the centre of the country.
The government confirmed an army base in the Mopti region had been targeted on Thursday, but gave no details.
The upsurge in violence comes as UN peacekeepers, deployed to Mali in 2013, withdraw on the orders of the junta.
Thursday’s raid on the town of Dioura is the most southerly one since Tuareg rebels renewed hostilities in August after the collapse of a 2015 peace deal.
This has coincided with growing violence from Islamist militant groups, despite the deployment in December 2021 of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries.
Boost for Wagner as Mali shuns UN troops
The army had already been targeted in Bamba earlier in September by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.
In a social media post, the military said the clashes in Bamba on Sunday had begun at 06:00, describing them as “intense”. It did not name the fighters involved, only describing them as “terrorists”.
An alliance of Tuareg groups, including the Co-ordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), said in a statement that it had now taken control of the area around Bamba, a town on the left bank of the River Niger between the cities of Timbuktu and Gao.
The Tuareg rebels, who want independence for northern Mali, are opposed to the army taking control of bases vacated by the thousands of departing UN troops.
The rebels had once been allied to the Islamist militant groups who took over northern Mali in 2012 – a move which prompted France and then the UN to intervene to stop them advancing south to the capital, Bamako.
The Tuareg groups went on to sign the Algiers peace agreement in 2015 with the government – but the jihadists persisted with attacks from their desert bases.
This continuing insurgency was the main reason Mali’s military seized power in 2020, accusing the civilian government of failing to provide security.
It pledged to end the militant attacks asking France to withdraw its forces and bringing in Wagner fighters.
Yet violence targeting civilians has increased by 38% in Mali this year, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (Acled) in a recent statement.
It said one al-Qaeda-linked group was responsible for 33% of attacks but it also blamed the military and Wagner for the increase, accounting for 29% of attacks, as they move into territory that been largely out of state control for more than a decade.
As part of these operations, it says they target civilians from various communities, believing them to be supporters of militant and rebel groups.
Acled says Wagner uses brutal tactics to instil fear not previously seen in Mali before, including “torture, summary executions, beheadings, ejection of prisoners from aircraft, and the booby-trapping of corpses”.
It warns the reawakened Tuareg rebellion and growing jihadist insurgency pose threats to the stability and security of civilian areas throughout Mali.
The UN is due to complete its withdrawal from Mali by the end of December.