BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's army is going on the offensive against Tuareg rebels after a number of strategic retreats during the first weeks of fighting, the president of the Malian parliament said Thursday.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced internally or have fled to surrounding countries since a Tuareg separatist group began attacking towns in the country's vast, arid north last month.
In the initial stages of the rebellion the Malian army retreated from some towns and moved back to larger military bases in the regional capitals of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
"The army was in defensive position," said Dioncounda Traore, who heads the National Assembly. "But the head of state told us they are now going to go after the attackers."
On Thursday, Traore presented an action plan aimed at bringing an end to the fighting. The government-backed plan was drawn up by political parties and involves them trying to bring rebels to the negotiating table.
So far there have been no negotiations between Mali and the rebel group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad.
"To get people to the negotiating table they need to understand the utility of the discussions," Traore said. "And that in part is going to be determined by the military situation on the ground."
The rebels have attacked at least seven towns, and dozens have been killed on both sides of the conflict. The army has sent reinforcements to some of the towns attacked, and earlier this week heavy fighting took place around the town of Tessalit.
"We sent reinforcements to Tessalit and these forces fought with the rebels and inflicted heavy losses. The rebels have now fled the area," a military official told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to talk to journalists.
The NMLA says only four of its fighters were injured around Tessalit and denies that the army convoy managed to reach the town.
The rebels are still in control of the town of Menaka where they have set up their own administration.
"The NMLA's military and political administration in Menaka is reassuring the population so that they can go about their activities as before," Hama Ag Sid'Ahmed, a spokesman for the rebels said.
Aid agencies say the tens of thousands displaced could further complicate efforts to deal with food shortages in the region which could affect millions this year.