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BAMAKO, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Pro-autonomy Tuareg rebels in Mali said on Tuesday they had occupied the northeastern town of Menaka, seeking to extend their presence as they push for talks with the government after the retreat of al Qaeda-linked insurgents.
It was not possible to independently verify whether the MNLA's fighters had entered Menaka, some 250 km (156 miles) southeast of their stronghold of Kidal. Menaka was a cradle of their uprising last year that seized northern Mali but was subsequently hijacked by al Qaeda and its allies.
Malian military officials have accused the MNLA of seeking to exaggerate its footprint in northern Mali to strengthen its hand in possible talks with Bamako after a three-week French-led offensive drove the Islamist fighters into the far northeast.
"Our forces have entered Menaka," MNLA spokesman Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh told Reuters by telephone from Ouagadougou, the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, declining to say how many fighters were in the town.
Ag Assaleh said the MNLA had entered the town because there were groups of rebels from al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM, as well as its splinter group MUJWA and Ansar Dine operating nearby, after they were driven from the region's main towns.
"We took Menaka to make sure the area was secure ... The Malian army do not want to leave Gao," Ag Assaleh said. "Any town which is not secured, we will take it."
Malian military sources said it was possible the MNLA had entered Menaka because Islamist rebels had fled and no other military force was occupying the town, which lies some 100 km (60 miles) from the border with Niger.
The MNLA seized control of northern Mali in April, taking advantage of a power vacuum left by a coup in Bamako, but its revolt was hijacked by a loose alliance of Islamist fighters, armed with weapons plundered from former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's arsenals.
A three-week ground and air offensive by former colonial power France, however, has driven Islamist insurgents from northern Mali's main towns.
The MNLA has since said it has re-taken control of Kidal, close to the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the border with Algeria.
Troops from neighbouring Niger and Chad have been backing the French forces in their operations against the Islamist fighters in the Kidal region, but they have avoided any clashes with the pro-autonomy MNLA.
The group said on Monday it had captured two senior Islamist leaders during its patrols of the area.
France has urged Mali's government to open a dialogue with northern communities including the Tuaregs, and Malian interim Dioncounda Traore says he is ready to talk to the MNLA provided they drop any claim for territorial independence.
Failure to solve the Tuareg issue could hamper the efforts of France and its regional and international allies to forge a lasting peace in Mali's remote north and prevent its use by al Qaeda as a launch pad for jihadist attacks. (Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)