BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — A new Tuareg rebel group launched a second day of attacks to "liberate" Mali's arid north, a rebel spokesman said Wednesday, ending the tenuous peace that has existed between Tuareg groups and the government for the last two years.
The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, whose members include Tuaregs who once fought for Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, launched raids on the towns of Aguelhok and Tessalit, said one of its leaders, Moussa Ag Acharatoumane.
"Aguelhok is currently under our control and we're working on Tessalit," said Ag Acharatoumane, who spoke to the AP by telephone from Paris. He said he could not yet give details on the number of people killed or wounded.
Col. Idrissa Traore, spokesman for Mali's Armed Forces, confirmed there was fighting in both Aguelhok and Tessalit, but would not give further details.
Mohamed Ag Alhamisse, a student who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone from Tessalit, said the fighting there had stopped by Wednesday afternoon.
"The rebels retreated. They were pursued by about 10 vehicles from the military base, including two armored vehicles," he said. "In the center of town things are now calm and people have returned to their usual activities."
However, Ag Alhamisse said people are still scared there might be another attack tonight. He said Wednesday's fighting began early in the morning, when about 20 vehicles entered the town and then moved on to attack the army barracks about 4 miles (7 kilometers) outside the town. "It's mostly small arms, but we have heard some heavy weapons too," he said.
Ag Acharatoumane, one of the leaders of the rebel group, said NMLA had a clear objective: "We want to liberate the entire territory that belongs to us."
The NMLA was created when a number of Tuareg groups hostile to the government came together in October. Azawad, a name mainly used by Tuareg nationalists, refers to the Tuareg-speaking zone covering northern Mali, northern Niger, and southern Algeria where many of the blue-turbaned nomads live.
"It's part of our strategy to strike at different places at the same time," Ag Acharatoumane told the AP Wednesday. "We've got a number of different units. These men are highly mobile and they are moving all the time."
He said the group would continue attacking.
Ag Acharatoumane warned: "We're going to do anything we can do to make things difficult for the Malian Army, to ensure they leave our territory as quickly as possible."
On Tuesday, the rebel group attacked the town of Menaka, near Mali's border with Niger. Aguelhok is about 260 miles (420 kilometers) northwest of Menaka and Tessalit is about 310 miles (500 kilometers) in the same direction. The rebel group has different divisions, and the expansive attacks suggest a wider assault, though northern Mali is mostly desert and there are not many towns.
Both sides gave conflicting information about Tuesday's fighting.
Mali's Armed Forces said in a statement released late Tuesday that many of the attackers and one government soldier had been killed. It said that six rebel vehicles were destroyed.
However, rebel spokesman Hama Ag Sid'Ahmed told the AP by telephone from Paris that the rebels had killed many government soldiers and suffered no fatalities.
Mali's Tuareg have risen up several times against the central government since the country gained independence from France in 1960.
The latest fighting has been fueled in part by the return of Tuareg fighters who had been part of Libya's security forces. Many returned to Mali with weapons after the Gadhafi regime fell.
The Malian government has expressed concern since the start of the war in Libya about its effects on security in Mali, a nation at the foot of the Sahara in northwest Africa.
The Tuaregs have long complained that Mali's central government — which is dominated by ethnic groups from the country's south — has ignored the nation's impoverished north.
Successive peace deals signed with the Tuaregs, including several that were mediated by Gadhafi himself, were supposed to give a greater share of the nation's resources to the Tuaregs but some factions have said the government did not fulfill its promises.