The Malian army came under attack Sunday from gunmen in the northern rebel stronghold of Kidal, the regional governor told AFP, in a sign of intensifying violence against the military after peace talks with rebels broke down.
The firefight follows two militant attacks on soldiers since Tuareg rebels claiming autonomy for northern Mali pulled out of the talks on Thursday, dealing a blow to hopes of a durable peace in the troubled west African nation.
"As I speak a lot of shots are being fired in Kidal. Armed men are shooting and the Malian soldiers have retaliated," Adama Kamissoko told AFP by telephone from the city as the fighting broke out.
The exchange ended more than an hour later with "some wounded", a close aide of Kamissoko said, although it was not immediately clear whether the casualties were soldiers or militants.
Kamissoko's office said the gunmen were separatist rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the main Tuareg group involved in the peace talks.
"Fighters from the MNLA came armed into the city centre, not far from a bank where there were Malian troops. They never wanted the army around. The army fired warning shots, and a firefight began," a source in the office said.
He added that international troops and UN peacekeeping forces already present in the city were deployed after the attack to protect the town hall, where the governor lives and works.
The MNLA accused Mali troops of "flagrant aggression" in Kidal saying that three of its fighters had been injured in exchanges of fire.
This was despite the unit's head, who was badly injured, leaving his vehicle "with his hands raised," the group said in a statement.
That incident led to exchanges of fire as the rest of the unit responded, the statement added.
Mali has suffered a series of attacks claimed by Islamist insurgents since France launched a military operation in January against Al-Qaeda-linked groups occupying the north of the country.
Four suicide bombers blew up their car at a military barracks in the desert city of Timbuktu on Saturday, killing two civilians and wounding six troops, less than 24 hours after militants threw grenades at the army in Kidal, wounding two soldiers.
But no Islamist group has claimed any of the recent attacks, with the spotlight falling on the MNLA.
'The war against terrorism is not over'
The government urged Malians to remain calm after Saturday's attack, saying security was being enhanced across the country.
"The multiplication of these attacks shows that the war against terrorism is not over and that the security situation remains fragile throughout the Sahel-Saharan region," it said in a statement.
The MNLA took control of Kidal in February after the French-led military operation ousted Al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had piggybacked on the latest Tuareg rebellion to seize most of northern Mali.
The Malian authorities reclaimed the city after signing a ceasefire deal with the MNLA but the situation has remained tense.
The June 18 Ouagadougou accord between the rebels and the government allowed the Mali military to return to Kidal to prepare the way for presidential elections in July which brought Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to power.
Under the deal signed in Burkina Faso, the government and rebels agreed to respect the country's territorial integrity and to hold peace talks focused on the status of northern Mali, which the Tuareg movements call Azawad.
But the rebels said on Thursday the government had not kept to its commitments to start prisoner releases, and announced they were pulling out.
The central government is unwilling to discuss autonomy for northern Mali and there have been sporadic clashes between Malian troops and local populations in the desert region since the deal was signed.
The authorities in Kidal said earlier on Sunday that a suicide bomber had been killed after accidentally detonating his explosives in a warehouse near the governor's official residence, which is currently occupied by the MNLA.
But Kamissoko told AFP that it was later discovered that no-one had died.
A close aide of the governor said the warehouse was in fact being used by Islamists who were hiding explosives and other weapons there.
"They mishandled them, and there was an explosion. An Islamist was wounded."
Peacekeepers, the Malian military and international troops entered the warehouse to destroy the remaining explosives and ammunition, he said.