Tuaregs and Islamists in fresh battle

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Islamist gunmen are fighting Tuareg separatist rebels in a ­battle for control of the town of Menaka in Mali’s northern desert, close to the border with Niger, both sides said.

The renewed fighting came as African leaders put the finishing touches on an international intervention plan to retake Mali’s north from a patchwork of armed groups.

“The fighting started early this morning and it is ongoing,” Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a France-based spokesman for the independence-seeking MNLA Tuareg group, said. “We have not given up on Menaka.”

A spokesman for al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group MUJWA said its fighters had already seized control of the town, about 60 miles from the Niger border, in clashes that had left many MNLA fighters “dead, wounded, and imprisoned”.

The MNLA declared an independent Tuareg homeland in April after routing government troops in the wake of a March coup, but it has since lost control of the zone to Islamists.

The international military operation is due to be led by Mali’s own military and backed by an African force, but will not be ready until some time next year.