Malian military officials say fighting has erupted between soldiers and Tuarag rebels in the northern region of Kidal.

They say the fighting lasted several hours Wednesday near an army base in the Sahara Desert town of Aguelhok.

The town has been plagued by rebel attacks and banditry for more than a year.

Last week, Tuareg rebels captured 30 troops in Kidal.

Ethnic Tuaregs are light-skinned desert nomads who complain of neglect by the black-dominated governments in Mali and neighboring Niger. The rebels have staged several uprisings in both countries since the early 1990s.

The recent rebel attacks have complicated efforts to free two Austrians being held hostage in Kidal by al-Qaida's North Africa branch.

Al-Qaida in North Africa took the Austrians to Mali after kidnapping them in Tunisia last month.

The extremist group says it will free the hostages in exchange for ransom and the release of Islamist militants jailed in Algeria and Tunisia.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.