BAMAKO (Reuters) - Tuareg rebels shot at peacekeepers outside the city of Timbuktu in northern Mali on Tuesday in an attack that endangers the United Nations-brokered peace process, the U.N. mission in the West African country said.
In another northern town, Menaka, fighting erupted anew as separatists sought to wrest it back from pro-government armed groups who had seized it the day before, the rival groups said.
Mongi Hamdi, U.N. special envoy in Mali, said the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), which combines various Tuareg and Arab separatist groups, claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack on U.N. peacekeepers on Timbuktu’s outskirts.
“Early this morning near Timbuktu, MINUSMA vehicles were targeted by the CMA. There are no victims. The CMA says it was a mistake and is calling for the departure of the army,” Hamdi said in a statement.
Malian government forces also came under gunfire outside Timbuktu, a Malian soldier and a local resident said. “Some National Guard positions were targeted from a distance by armed men aboard vehicles,” said the government soldier, who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“These two events (Timbuktu and Menaka) are extremely worrying because they are endangering the peace process,” Hamdi added. France’s foreign ministry also urged parties to respect an earlier ceasefire deal.
Northern Mali has experienced repeated insurgencies over the past five decades, with mainly Tuareg rebels fighting for independence from the government in the south.
In the most recent uprising in 2012, separatists joined forces with Islamist militants to briefly seize control of the northern two-thirds of the country before a French-led military intervention rolled them back. Mali is a former French colony.
For months, U.N. and Algerian mediators have been thrashing out a peace proposal for the West African country that aims to prevent future revolts by Tuareg-led insurgents.
After weeks of deliberations, the CMA said late on Sunday it had tentatively approved the initiative, following similar pledges from other armed groups and the government.
A Paris-based spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the largest Tuareg rebel group, said that CMA troops had launched an assault on Menaka on Tuesday afternoon.
Thousands of Menaka residents took to the streets calling for Malian soldiers, who are based inside the U.N. peacekeepers’ base there, to take charge of security, a local journalist said.
MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatoumane told Reuters that CMA forces were also advancing elsewhere. A spokesman for the Gatia pro-government armed faction confirmed that their positions were under attack.
Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Abidjan, Emma Farge in Dakar and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Joe Bavier and Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich