BAMAKO Mali's army forced Islamist rebels out of an important north-eastern town on Wednesday, a senior army official said, the first major pushback by government forces since the north of the country fell to insurgents last year.
"The army has retaken Douentza, we just had confirmation that the jihadists have withdrawn following the clash," an officer at the military junta headquarters told Reuters on Thursday, requesting not to be named.
It was not immediately possible to independently confirm the ouster of rebels from Douentza, which they seized in September. The town is an important gateway between north and south Mali, some 600 kilometres (375 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako.
A Douentza resident said that, though the Islamists withdrew following heavy fighting, the army was not inside the town.
Clashes involving heavy artillery were also recorded in other localities in the Mopti region and in Konna, a senior army officer at the Mali defence ministry said.
The renewed fighting could quash hopes of a breakthrough at peace talks between the Malian government, the rebels and separatist Tuaregs which were scheduled to start in Burkina Faso on Thursday but have been postponed until January 21.
(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Jon Boyle)