May 5, 2015 / 6:19 PM / in 3 years

Mali says 11 killed during suspected separatist attack on central town

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Suspected northern rebels attacked a town in central Mali on Tuesday, leading to clashes with government troops in which 10 assailants and one soldier died, the government said in a statement.

A rising wave of violence in the West African country and regular violations of a ceasefire between the government and the rebels are threatening to sink a U.N.-backed peace deal due to receive preliminary approval this month.

The gunmen attacked Tenenkou, around 400 km (250 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, before dawn, according to the defence ministry and Mali’s U.N. mission, MINUSMA.

The government statement, released late on Tuesday, said three soldiers were injured in the fighting during which the army successfully repelled the attackers. A defence ministry spokesman earlier said that Malian troops seized arms and vehicles from the assailants.

MINUSMA spokeswoman Radhia Achouri said the fighting ended by mid-morning.

“We understand that the Malian state forces maintained control of the town,” she told Reuters.

The U.N. did not immediately identify the attackers, while the government described them only as “armed bandits”.

However, the Coordination of Movements for Azawad (CMA) - an umbrella organisation of Tuareg and Arab separatist groups - claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement and said its fighters had seized control of Tenenkou.

This could not be immediately verified by independent sources.

Tenenkou was attacked twice in January, though on those occasions the raids were blamed on an ethnic Peulh militia not belonging to the CMA.

The peace deal, to which the government and armed groups are due to give preliminary approval on May 15, aims to end a cycle of uprisings in northern Mali over the past five decades by mainly Tuareg rebels fighting for independence.

In the most recent 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.

Diplomats hope a peace deal will allow Malian and international forces to concentrate on tackling al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters roaming the country’s lawless desert region.

Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo, Souleymane Ag Anara and Adama Diarra; additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier; editing by John Stonestreet, G Crosse

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