BAMAKO (Reuters) - At least 20 people were killed in a gunbattle in the northern Mali town of Gao on Wednesday between local Tuareg separatists and al Qaeda-linked Islamists vying for control of the desert zone, residents said.
The battle follows weeks of tension between the separatist Tuareg-led group MNLA and well-armed local Islamists who helped it seize the northern two-thirds of Mali in April but whose goal is to impose sharia Islamic law across the country.
One witness said the former governor's residence in Gao which the MNLA had turned into the "palace" of the northern territory it calls the independent state of Azawad, had been heavily damaged by heavy arms fire during the battle.
The fighting will add to fears of Mali becoming a potential launchpad for jihadi action. The U.N. Security Council has said it would be ready to support military intervention by Mali's neighbours but first needs more details of their plans.
"The MNLA and MUJWA are launching rockets at each other between the two markets of the town and the governor's building," Gao resident Sila Askou said by telephone of the governor's premises in which the MNLA has set up headquarters.
"Right now the only people in the streets are the two armed groups fighting each other. Everyone else is staying at home," added Askou.
Gao resident Habsatou Cisse said by telephone she saw five bodies from the house in which she was sheltering. Others reported 11 and four bodies in two separate locations. They said civilians were among those killed but had no other details.
Separately, residents in the northern town of Timbuktu 300 km (200 miles) west said they had seen armed convoys of the local Ansar Dine Islamist group - a MUJWA ally - racing to Gao.
"We are going to obliterate the MNLA today," said local Islamist Ousmane Toure by telephone. "Enough is enough."
Malick Aliou Maiga, another resident contacted by telephone, said the MNLA headquarters had been badly damaged in the battle, which started around mid-morning.
Neither the MNLA's spokesmen based in Mali or in Europe were immediately contactable for comment but one member of the group speaking on condition of anonymity said the attack on the HQ had been repelled.
"Either the MUJWA backs off or we are heading towards an all-out armed confrontation," said the MNLA member.
Another MNLA member said the clash started because of its refusal to back the sharia law which Ansar Dine, the MUJWA and others are already seeking to impose in the north, a sharp contrast to the moderate local version of Islam.
Tensions had been further brought to a head on Tuesday when the MNLA accused Islamists of encouraging local youths to march in protest at the killing of a local councillor blamed on MNLA forces. At least two people died in the protests, with residents saying MNLA fighters shot into the crowd.