Tuareg rebels seize key military base in northern Mali

BAMAKO (AFP) - After weeks of battles at a military base near the town of Tessalit in northern Mali, Tuareg rebels seized control of the camp while the army said they had only made a strategic retreat.

"We have taken control of the Tessalit military base. There were not a lot of victims, we have taken a few dozen prisoners," said Moussa Salam, a leader of the Tuareg rebellion which flared up in January for the first time since 2009.

A regional security source contacted from Bamako said: "Our information confirms that the Malian army is no longer inside the camp. Did they leave willingly or were they forced? That is another question."

The military camp is about 15 kilometres (10 miles) from the strategically based town in northeastern Mali, near the border with Algeria.

Lieutenant Broulaye Guisse who is based in the region told AFP the army "has made a strategic retreat ... the majority of the troop has withdrawn to Abeibara to also provide protection for the town of Kidal".

"We withdrew our troops to avoid a massacre of civilians by the rebels and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magherb (AQIM)," he said, adding there had been no fighting and thus no deaths.

Authorities have accused the Tuareg of joining hands with AQIM which is involved in kidnapping of Westerners and other criminal activities in the country's vast desert north.

Heavy fighting has taken place for control of this camp since the end of February.

Tuareg rebels, many of whom recently returned from fighting for fallen Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, have launched several attacks on towns in the region since mid-January, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

They have struck up a decades-old battle for autonomy for the nomadic desert tribe which is scattered between Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali and Niger.

Mali and Niger experienced similar uprisings in the 1960s, 1990s and early 2000 with a resurgence between 2006 and 2009.

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