BAMAKO (Reuters) - Three Malian soldiers were wounded in clashes with separatist Tuareg rebels on Wednesday, the army said, the first clashes since the two sides signed a ceasefire deal in June.
The fighting took place near the western town of Lere and comes a week after President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was sworn in, highlighting simmering tensions as he seeks to secure an end cycles of uprisings by northern rebels.
Last year’s rebellion triggered a coup and was then hijacked by better-armed al Qaeda-linked Islamists, who seized northern Mali. France sent thousands of soldiers to its former colony in January to halt the Islamists’ march southward.
A United Nations peacekeeping mission is now rolling out to ensure stability as French troops gradually withdraw.
“An army patrol came across some gunmen in four-wheel drives. They refused to follow the army’s orders and opened fire on the troops,” said army spokesman Captain Modibo Naman Traore.
Traore said three soldiers were wounded.
Attaye Ag Mohamed, one of the founders of the Tuareg-led MNLA rebellion, accused the army of starting the fighting by surrounding their position. He did not give any toll.
According to the ceasefire deal signed to allow elections to take place in July and August, Keita has 60 days from the naming of his government last Sunday to start talks over a final deal with the rebels.
Keita has promised national reconciliation but will be under pressure from southern Malians not to make major concessions to the Tuareg, whom many blame for sparking their country’s collapse last year.
Reporting by Adama Diarra; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Christopher Wilson