Tuareg rebels say they extend control in Mali's northeast

Tue Feb 5, 2013 5:14pm EST
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By Cheikh Diouara

KIDAL, Mali (Reuters) - Pro-autonomy Tuareg rebels in Mali said on Tuesday they had occupied the town of Menaka, extending their control of the remote northeast as they position for talks with the government after the retreat of al Qaeda-linked insurgents.

It was not possible to independently verify whether MNLA fighters had entered Menaka, some 250 km (156 miles) south of their stronghold of Kidal. Menaka was a cradle of the MNLA's separatist uprising last year that took over northern Mali but was subsequently hijacked by al Qaeda and its allies.

Malian military officials have accused the MNLA of seeking to exaggerate its presence in the north 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 neighboring Burkina Faso.

Ag Assaleh said the MNLA entered Menaka because there were rebels from al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM, as well as its splinter group MUJWA and Ansar Dine, operating nearby after being driven from the region's main towns, Timbuktu and Gao.

"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, situated 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 eclipsed by a loose alliance of Islamist jihadists.   Continued...