BAMAKO Islamist gunmen and rival separatist rebels fought a gun battle in the east of Mali on Friday, both groups said, the first clash between them for months.
The exchange of fire between al Qaeda-linked MUJWA and secular independence-seeking MNLA rebels, near Mali's border with Niger and Burkina Faso, happened as African countries planned military action against northern rebels.
Rebels of various stripe seized control of the north after a military coup in March paralysed the central government. But rivalries between the groups ended their uneasy joint-control of the area and in June MUJWA ousted the MNLA from the town of Gao, the region where Friday's fighting took place.
Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a spokesman for the MNLA, said the fighting was part of its plan to retake Gao.
But Moussa Toure, a resident in the town, said MUJWA gunmen there fired in their air in celebration after the group announced on local radio it had defeated the MNLA.
Neither side gave a death toll. Security sources in Niger said troops on their side of the border had been put on high alert due to the heavy fighting.
Meanwhile, regional mediator Burkina Faso held joint talks with MNLA representatives and members of Ansar Dine, another al Qaeda-linked Islamist group occupying parts of Mali's north, as it seeks to open dialogue with some of the rebels.
The two groups are both led by Tuaregs but differ on aims - with one seeking to impose Islamic law, the other aiming to carve out an independent state.
Mediators want to bring them to the negotiating table to discuss their demands with Mali's government and, in the process, isolate extremists and organised crime networks ahead of the planned military operation.
After two hours of joint talks, Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole said the two groups had pledged to continue to work with mediators and table joint demands.
Groups that come to a negotiated deal would be spared from the planned offensive but MUJWA and AQIM, al Qaeda's North African wing which it operates alongside, are not being considered for talks.
The military operation is due to be led by Mali's own military and backed by an African force but will not be ready until sometime next year.
(Reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako; David Lewis in Dakar; Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou; Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Niamey; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)