Mali army fires warning shots to halt Islamist advance

BAMAKO, Jan 8 (Reuters) - Malian soldiers fired warning
shots on Tuesday at Islamist fighters pushing south towards
their positions, military and diplomatic sources said, raising
fears of the first clashes since militants seized Mali's north
in April.

The capture of the northern two thirds of the arid West
African nation by a loose coalition of Islamist groups has sown
fears among Western and regional powers that Mali could become a
haven for radicals to plot international attacks.

Peace talks between some of the northern rebel groups and
the government are scheduled for Thursday in Ouagadougou, the
capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, but growing military
tensions threaten to derail them.

Ansar Dine, one of the main rebel factions, was one of
several groups pushing southwards toward the line dividing
government-held territory from arid northern Mali.

The group had announced it ended a ceasefire because of
international plans to deploy an African-led force to drive
radical al Qaeda-linked fighters from Mali's north.

Ansar Dine is seen as more hardline than the Tuareg MNLA but
less radical than MUJWA, which includes more foreign fighters
and is considered to have ties with al Qaeda.

A military source said on Tuesday the Malian army fired
heavy artillery during the night to persuade the Islamist
fighters to halt their advance.

"The army fired warning shots at several points along the
line during the night, to dissuade them," said the source at the
defence ministry in Bamako.

The warning shots were confirmed by a Western diplomat.

Sanda Ould Boumama, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, refused to
comment on whether any fighting had taken place.

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. Islamists who initially
fought alongside them soon came to dominate the rebellion.

There appears scant chance of a breakthrough in this week's
talks. Ansar Dine has insisted it will not drop its demands for
Islamic law and autonomy for northern Mali, while President
Dioncounda Traore, installed after March's coup, has insisted he
will not compromise over Mali's secular state and territorial

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, Bate Felix in Dakar and
Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Tom