Tuareg rebels 'take' north Mali town as Niger troops leave

Tuareg separatist rebels on Tuesday claimed control of the northern Mali town of Menaka, left exposed after the departure of Niger troops who had seized it from Islamist fighters in a French-led offensive.

"The town of Menaka fell into the hands of the MNLA forces this afternoon," said Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, spokesman for the Azawad National Liberation Movement.

A Malian security source confirmed the entry of the secular Tuareg rebels into the town some 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the Niger border.

"About 40 militants claiming they were from the MNLA are in the deserted town of Menaka. There are no Islamists around," the source said.

The Tuareg desert nomads of the MNLA have re-appeared on the scene in embattled northern Mali, where their bid for independence last year sparked the country's rapid implosion and left the north in the hands of radical Islamists.

The impoverished former "masters of the desert", who have lived in the region for 2,000 years, have in recent decades fought several battles for independence of the vast swathe of desert they call Azawad.

During their most recent rebellion -- which sparked a coup in Bamako -- the MNLA allied with radical Islamists, seen as stronger and better-armed, to seize control of northern Mali.

Menaka was one of the first towns seized by the MNLA, but the secular Tuareg were quickly sidelined by their Islamist allies across the north in June, who were more interested in installing sharia than independence.

However, Menaka was not seen as important to the Islamists, who abandoned it. The MNLA returned, only to be chased out again in November.

On January 26, as a French-led offensive chased the Islamists from their strongholds, soldiers from Niger who form part of the African force seized control of the town.

However, they left it unsecured after moving on towards Gao, the largest town in northern Mali.

An MNLA spokesman said in the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou earlier Tuesday that the former rebels were working with French forces to fight the Islamist "terrorists".