Moussa Ag Assarid of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or NMLA, said their fighters also are holding the northeastern towns of Tessalit, Menaka, Aguelhok and Tinzawatten. Azawad is what the Tuaregs call their homeland.
Mali army national spokesman Diarran Kone refused to comment on the NMLA claims, saying only that ‘‘the re-conquest is continuing.’’ It was not immediately possible to verify the NMLA claims. Phone networks remained down in the area.
Trouble began last year in Mali, once a stable democracy in West Africa, with the latest in a series of Tuareg rebellions in the north. The Malian army staged a coup in the faraway capital, Bamako, and in the chaos that followed, the Tuaregs and Islamic extremists made rapid advances, seizing the main cities in northern Mali. Poorly armed and demoralized Malian soldiers fled before their advance.
But the secular fighters fell out with the Islamist extremists. As the extremists have fled the French bombing campaign, it appears the NMLA fighters have moved back into some areas.
They have said they are willing to work with the French forces but not Malian troops, whom they accuse of committing reprisals against the lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Michelle Faul in Johannesburg; and Baba Ahmed in Timbuktu, Mali contributed to this report.