BAMAKO (Reuters) - A Tuareg-dominated rebel coalition said on Saturday it was holding prisoner 19 Malian government soldiers captured in clashes a day earlier, amid growing violence in the north that threatens to derail U.N.-brokered peace efforts.
Army sources confirmed that soldiers were missing after the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA) briefly seized the small town of Tessit, in Mali’s northern Gao region.
A spokesman for the CMA said its fighters had withdrawn from Tessit by Saturday morning, taking with them captured weapons, ammunition and the prisoners.
“They are Malian soldiers and there are 19 of them,” Almou Ag Mohamed told Reuters.
Photos from a CMA fighter present in Tessit seen by Reuters showed at least a dozen men, most in civilian clothing, with their hands tied behind their backs and surrounded by rebel fighters.
It was not immediately possible to independently authenticate the images or identify the captives further.
“Some soldiers are missing. It’s very likely that they were taken prisoner,” an army officer based in the nearby town of Gao said, asking not to be named.
Neither he nor an intelligence officer in the capital Bamako gave further details.
A ceasefire deal was signed between the government, its allies and northern separatist groups last year, but violations have increased since pro-government fighters seized the flashpoint town of Menaka late last month.
The United Nations said on Friday it was investigating reports of serious human rights abuses during fighting over the town of Tin Hama, not far from Menaka, this week.
“The United States condemns the ongoing violence in northern Mali, including reports of summary executions of civilians in Tin Hama,” the U.S. State Department said on Saturday.
Malian troops exchanged fire on Saturday with suspected CMA fighters near the town of Ber, about 50 km (30 miles) east of Timbuktu, according to another Malian army officer. A dozen rockets hit a base for U.N. peacekeepers in the town on Friday.
The violence has continued in northern Mali despite a 2013 French-led intervention that pushed back al Qaeda-linked fighters who hijacked a Tuareg-led uprising and seized two-thirds of the country in 2012.
Western powers hope an agreement negotiated in Algeria between the government and the rebels will end decades of northern rebellions and allow international and Malian forces to concentrate on defeating Islamist militants.
However, most rebel groups boycotted the signing of the peace deal last week and have given it only initial approval.
Additional reporting by Souleymane Ag Anara and Adama Diarra; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Alison Williams and Marguerita Choy