BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Tuareg rebel fighters in Mali opened a fifth front on Thursday, attacking a town in the northwest of the country only hours after striking one in the remote east, according to local and government officials and a spokesman for the rebel group.
In a matter of days, the little-known rebel group has shown that they can attack in the far north, the northeast and the northwest. Lere is more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) west of Anderamboukane, where the group attacked Thursday morning.
Cheickna Dicko, the mayor of the town of Lere, said by telephone from Bamako that his town had been attacked by the Tuareg faction.
"I've just managed to speak to a couple of people as the mobile phone network is down. People don't really know what's going on as they are hiding in their houses," he said.
Moussa Ag Acharatoumane of the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, confirmed that his group had struck Lere. Earlier he had confirmed that the group had taken Anderamboukane, a town in the far east, the fifth town in just one week.
"Operations are on going in Lere. I haven't got the confirmation yet from our officers on the ground that the town has been taken but I'm sure this is not long off," he said. "We have mobile units that can attack all over the north of Mali. We are going to continue to attack towns across north of Mali."
Col. Idrissa Traore, a spokesman for Mali's armed forces, confirmed that there had been fighting in Anderamboukane, but did not give further details.
The Azawad is the traditional home of the Tuaregs in northern Mali, and the rebel group says they are fighting for it to become autonomous. The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert, have risen up against the central government in Mali three times since the country's independence from France in 1960.
Previous rebellions including the most recent which ended in 2009, have in part been sponsored by Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, who claimed to have blood ties to the Tuaregs. He felt such affinity with the ethnic group that he entrusted a part of his security to the Tuaregs, and it was Tuareg guides who evacuated his son to Niger across the massive desert border after the fall of Tripoli.
The NMLA's military wing was boosted by the return of pro-Gadhafi Tuareg fighters from Libya when the regime was toppled last year.
A heavy death toll is also being reported from the town of Aguelhok in Mali's north where fighting started last week.
"The reinforcements who arrived on the scene Wednesday afternoon told us there are around 40 Malian troops dead," said a Malian soldier based in the north, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
"The fighting around Aguelhok has been very heavy," said Ag Acharatoumane of the NMLA without specifying the number of dead. "At one point Mali's helicopters fired on us. Many Malian soldiers have been killed."
Traore confirmed that some Malian soldiers had been killed at Aguelhok, but he refused to give the number of dead.
Security experts have been warning for months that the flow of arms and mercenaries out of Libya could destabilize the countries at the feet of the nation Gadhafi controlled for over 41 years. The enormous desert that stretches across northern Mali and northern Niger has more recently become one of the smuggling routes for al-Qaida's North African chapter, which is believed to have forged alliances with some Tuareg groups. It's a combustible mix, and senior military officials, including the general in charge of U.S. military operations in Africa have voiced concern over the growing threat.
Neither Mali nor Niger have the military capability to take on a major insurgency, and members of both Niger and Mali's government have approached the U.S. to ask for military support.
Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Bamako, Mali.