Clashes between armed groups and pro-government militias killed at least six people in northern Mali, Tuareg rebels said on Friday, stoking tensions ahead of a new round of peace talks later this month.
Mali's northern desert region, home to the nomadic Tuaregs, has sought greater autonomy for a region known as Azawad for decades and last rose up in 2012. Negotiations between the government and pro-independence groups are due to resume in Algiers by the end of the month.
"There were three offensives during the day in the locality of In Tillit. They used heavy arms and shells,'' said Attaye Ag Mohamed, an official with the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), referring to fighting that took place near the town of Gao on Thursday.
He said two pro-Azawad fighters and 14 pro-government militia were killed in the clashes. Another Tuareg group CPA said the violence began when militia attacked a site defined as a barracks for fighters during the peace process.
Army officer Didier Dako denied any army involvement in the clashes. The army information service said six people had been killed in fighting.
The U.N. mission in Mali confirmed the fighting and said it had sent a drone and Apache helicopters to the site. Arnauld Akodjenou, deputy head of the U.N. mission, urged both sides to stick to a roadmap agreement struck in Algiers in July.
"On the eve of the resumption of peace talks, all the Malian parties and armed groups are called to scrupulously respect their commitments,'' he said in a statement.
Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, elected last year, has ruled out independence for the north but has indicated that he is open to negotiations over devolving more authority over local affairs to the region.
The army has little control over the desert north and new militias have sprung up in the vacuum, with one group known as GATIA vowing to fight back against pro-independence fighters.
In May, around 50 soldiers were killed in clashes with northern fighters during a visit by Prime Minister Moussa Mara to the northern town of Kidal.