BAMAKO - A Tuareg-dominated rebel coalition said on Saturday it was holding prisoner 19 Malian government soldiers captured in fighting 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 following clashes late on Friday that saw the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA) briefly seize the small town of Tessit, in Mali's northern Gao region. They declined to give further details.
A spokesman for the CMA said its fighters had withdrawn from Tessit by Saturday morning, taking with them captured weapons, ammunition and the prisoners.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 seen by Reuters from a CMA fighter involved in the fighting in Tesssit 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.
A cease-fire deal was signed between the government, its allies and northern separatist groups last year, but violations of the agreement have increased since pro-government fighters seized the flashpoint town of Menaka late last month.
"There was fighting between the CMA and the army yesterday around dusk in Tessit. 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.
An army intelligence officer in the capital Bamako also said government soldiers were missing but would not say how many.
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.