BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali's U.N. peacekeeping mission deployed troops around a northern separatist stronghold on Tuesday, seeking to prevent an escalation of clashes between rebels and pro-government militias that threaten to torpedo a peace deal.
The separatists, led by Tuareg tribesmen, and the pro-government Platform militias signed the U.N. sponsored peace accord in June. Its aim was to pacify the north and allow the Malian army to focus on tackling Islamist militants in the west African country.
The two sides have traded blame for the clashes, which began on Saturday. On Monday, Platform fighters seized the town of Anefis from the separatist Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), raising the prospect they could advance on the town of Kidal, the group's main stronghold.
"These acts constitute a flagrant violation of the ceasefire and the peace accord," the U.N. mission, MINUSMA, said in a statement.
MINUSMA called on both sides to immediately return to the positions they occupied on Aug. 15, and said it was putting in place a security zone extending 20 km (12 miles) around Kidal to prevent a spread of the violence and to protect civilians.
"In the case of a violation of this security zone by Platform elements or those affiliated with the Platform, MINUSMA will react in accordance with its mandate," the mission said.
There are over 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Mali, 90 percent of them in the north. The U.N. force did not specify how many troops were deployed around Kidal.
The move was criticized by the separatists and the pro-government militia, while the Malian government called on the U.N. mission to remain within its mandate of protecting the civilian population in all parts of the country.
"Any unequal treatment will produce perverse effects that would harm the search for peace," government spokesman Choguel Kokala Maiga said on state television.
No clashes were reported on Tuesday. A Reuters witness said CMA fighters were reinforcing positions around Kidal and deploying heavy weapons.
Fahad Ag Almahamoud, the secretary general of the GATIA pro-government militia, slammed the U.N. mission for handing part of Mali's territory to a rebel group.
"We do not understand this decision by MINUSMA," he said.
Mohamoud Ag Ghaly, secretary to the president of the CMA, said the group had no need of U.N. protection and had already repulsed an effort to take Kidal.
He said the U.N. mission was failing to protect civilians in northern towns occupied by the militia and the Malian army, including Menaka and Anefis.
Neighboring Niger had been due to host talks from Wednesday to ease tensions but government sources in Niamey said the discussions were canceled after representatives of the armed groups failed to show up, citing the latest violence.
Mali says it has asked the African Union and the United Nations to investigate the ceasefire violations. MINUSMA on Monday threatened to apply targeted sanctions against those found to be behind the violence.
The West African nation is seeking to break a decades-long cycle of Tuareg uprisings, the most recent of which allowed Islamist groups, some linked to al Qaeda, to seize the desert north in 2012.
A French-led intervention a year later scattered the Islamists but failed to eradicate them, and Islamist violence is once more on the rise, spreading further south.
Reporting by Souleymane Ag Anara, Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Joe Bavier and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Mark Trevelyan, Robin Pomeroy, Toni Reinhold