New fighting and a crackdown on women not wearing veils by Islamist militants marred peace moves by two rival groups in Mali's desert north despite pledges they were ready for peace talks with Bamako.
In Islamist-controlled Timbuktu, a local official said yesterday dozens of women were
arrested on Thursday by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) for not wearing veils.
"The Islamists were going into homes to arrest unveiled women," he said.
The women were being "imprisoned" at a disused bank, a medical source added, as AQIM militants vowed to continue the crackdown in the city which they control with Islamist group Ansar Dine, saying "that nothing can prevent them from doing so".
With the north of the country in the hands of a number of Islamist groups, a Tuareg separatist leader meanwhile said his National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) had launched an "offensive" to retake the key north-central region of Gao controlled by the al Qaeda linked Islamist rebels of MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa).
But late on Friday security sources told AFP the fighting had ended and that the MNLA suffered a "heavy defeat".
An interim administration has been running Mali since the leaders of a March military coup stepped back from power under international pressure in April.
The coup resulted in Tuareg separatists seizing key towns in the north. They were later ousted by the Islamists, giving rise to fears by the international community that the area could become a sanctuary for international extremist groups.
Both AQIM and the less known but associated MUJAO have imposed a brutal form of sharia Islamic law, stoning unmarried couples, amputating thieves' hands and whipping drinkers and smokers.
"The Tuareg of the MNLA suffered a heavy defeat against the MUJAO Islamists. During the fighting, the MUJAO ambushed the MNLA which lost many men," said a Malian security source, which was then confirmed by a regional security source.
There were at least a dozen deaths for the MNLA and at least one death among the Islamists, the source added.
The Islamists sent the MNLA Tuaregs fleeing and "there were even some MNLA soldiers who sought refuge in neighbouring countries", said the security source who requested anonymity.
MUJAO had seized control of Gao in June following battles that claimed 35 lives, leaving the MNLA with no city base.
A spokesman for MUJAO, Walid Sahraoui, said the fighting left "several dead and wounded among the MNLA soldiers", but declined to give figures.
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