BAMAKO (Reuters) - A joint force of Mauritanian and Malian soldiers clashed with fighters from al Qaeda's African wing in western Mali late Friday, Malian military and defense sources said Saturday.
The fighting took place in the Wagadou forest region near Mauritania's border, an area where fighters from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are known to operate.
"There was fierce fighting, including heavy weapons, and there were certainly deaths," said a Malian military source, who could not give further details on casualties.
He said that helicopters from Mali had been used to evacuate the wounded from the area.
A source close to Mali's Defense Ministry said Friday the government was preparing a statement. Mauritanian officials contacted by Reuters did not comment.
Governments in Africa's Sahel region are on heightened alert since the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces in Pakistan in May.
Security analysts have said AQIM may be planning revenge attacks, and also may have new access to weapons and explosives from Libya since an uprising there shook the government's control of stockpiles.
AQIM has its roots in Algeria's Salafist movement, but has pushed south into the lawless Sahel region in recent years where it funds operations by collecting kidnap ransoms and by siphoning off the West African drugs trade.
Additional reporting by Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Janet Lawrence