A pro-government militia in Mali said on Monday it had killed 20 separatists in three days of fighting that the U.N. peacekeeping mission said undermined efforts to pacify the northern region of the country.
The fighting occurred as neighboring Niger prepares to hold peace talks on Wednesday between the pro-government Platform group, which includes the Gatia militia, and the
Tuareg-dominated Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).
The talks are aimed at restoring a peace agreement signed in June that the government had hoped would allow Mali's army to focus on stamping out Islamist groups.
"The fighting is over for now on all three fronts. CMA lost everywhere and sustained 20 dead. There was none on our side. All the deaths were for nothing," Fahad Ag Almahamoud, Gatia's Secretary General, told Reuters.
The CMA, which has yet to confirm it will attend the talks, said it lost only two fighters in the recent clashes.
The CMA also said it had informed the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA), that Platform had provoked the fighting in areas that CMA controls.
"Platform wants to sow disorder. We think that no one is the winner of the skirmishes," said CMA spokesman Almou Ag Mohamed, adding that Platform lost many fighters and his forces had lost two, one of whom had probably been captured.
A Reuters witness saw heavily armed CMA fighters aboard pick-up trucks racing out of the town of Kidal – the separatists' main stronghold - in the direction of the fighting early on Monday and French fighter jets flew over the town.
Ag Mohamed said that the CMA saw little value in attending the talks in Niger, but no final decision had been made, blaming MINUSMA for failing to prevent Platform from launching attacks.
MINUSMA threatened to impose sanctions against those responsible for the recent violence. It later said it would place a security zone 20 km (12 miles) around Kidal from 8 a.m. local time (0800 GMT) on Tuesday.
"The growing number of [ceasefire] violations deeply worries the international community ... and risks hampering advances toward a stable and durable peace," it said in a statement.
Mali is seeking to break a decades-long cycle of Tuareg uprisings. In 2012, rebels formed an alliance with Islamist militants and seized the north, prompting a French-led intervention that scattered the Islamists but failed to eradicate them.
Militant violence is on the rise and expanding further south, putting pressure on the government to defuse tension with the Tuaregs.