BAMAKO (Reuters) - Tuareg separatist rebels attacked Malian army positions in the northern town of Dire on Saturday, as rising violence threatened to derail a U.N.-backed peace deal due to be signed this month.
Dire lies southwest of the ancient desert trading outpost of Timbuktu and close to the town of Lere were nine soldiers were killed in an attack on Thursday claimed by the separatist rebel Coordination of Movements for Azawad (CMA).
Violence pitting the CMA -- an umbrella organization of Tuareg and Arab separatist groups -- against the army and pro-government militia in recent days has violated a U.N-backed ceasefire deal.
Souleymane Maiga, director of information for the Malian army, said it had sent in troops to counter the attack.
CMA spokesman Almou Ag Mohamed said that rebel fighters had briefly taken control of the military camp in Dire and then withdrawn after seizing a police officer, two vehicles and a stash of weapons.
He said no rebel fighters were wounded in the attack.
However, two local residents, who asked not to be identified, said two rebel fighters were killed and five captured as the CMA withdrew when army reinforcements arrived. It was not possible to confirm that independently.
The United Nations has warned that the growing tensions in northern Mali have endangered a peace deal due to receive preliminary approval from the government and armed groups in the capital Bamako on May 15.
Northern Mali has witnessed several days of violence. Pro-government militia seized Menaka, near the Niger border, on Monday, while two soldiers and a civilian were killed on Wednesday when separatist rebels attacked Goundam, which lies between Timbuktu and Lere.
Ag Mohamed said that the CMA would continue its attacks on army positions in the north until the pro-government militia withdrew from Menaka and returned to the positions it occupied when the ceasefire was agreed.
Reporting by Adama Diarra and Souleymane Ag Anara; Writing by Daniel Flynn; editing by Ralph Boulton