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Troops and Islamists clash in central Mali

People gather on January 9, 2013, in Bamako calling for the liberation of the northern part of the country
People gather on January 9, 2013, in Bamako, calling for the liberation of the northern part of the country and the resignation of Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore. Malian troops exchanged fire Wednesday with armed Islamist groups that have bee

Malian troops exchanged fire with armed Islamist groups that have been occupying the country's vast desert north for nine months and appear to be trying to push farther south.

The latest clashes, which a resident said included heavy-weapons fire, came less than 48 hours after the west African nation's army put down an attempted Islamist attack on the same town, Konna, which is located near the edge of the government-controlled zone and the regional capital of Mopti, the gateway to the south.

A Malian soldier told AFP by telephone from Konna: "We have launched operations against the enemy, who attempted to fight back.

"We are going to oust them," he added, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Konna residents confirmed the clashes.

One told AFP there had been heavy-weapons fire, saying the "war" between the Islamists and the military had erupted late in the afternoon and was still going on several hours later.

Two Islamist policemen patrol in the streets of Gao, northern Mali, on July 16, 2012
Two Islamist policemen patrol in the streets of Gao, northern Mali, on July 16, 2012.

"We are hearing a lot of gunfire. The army is shooting and the Islamists too," said another resident reached by phone.

The Islamists, who control part of Mopti province, had previously tried to attack Konna overnight Monday, according to the army.

The Malian military has a command post near Konna in the town of Sevare, where the army had earlier sent reinforcements and extra weapons, according to residents and an army officer.

The armed Islamist groups controlling the north -- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) -- could not immediately be reached for comment.

The clashes came after NATO said Wednesday that it had not been asked to assist African forces in retaking control of the Malian north, an area the size of France.

NATO was responding to comments made Tuesday by the African Union chairman, Benin's President Thomas Yayi Boni, urging the alliance to intervene.

"There has been no request or discussion on a possible role for NATO in Mali," said a NATO official who asked not to be named.

"NATO is not involved in this crisis but the situation in northern Mali is of course of grave concern to us all. It threatens the security and stability of the country, the region and beyond."

Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole whose country is mediating in the conflict called for restraint after reported "troop movements".

Islamist police patrol in the streets of Gao, northern Mali, on July 16, 2012
Islamist police patrol in the streets of Gao, northern Mali, on July 16, 2012.

"We are concerned about the situation in the north where troop movements have been reported," he told ORTM state television after meeting with Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko.

"We call on all parties to hold their fire ... and above all for all warring parties to create conditions of trust and serenity that will help create a constructive and peaceful dialogue," he added.

His statement was recorded before reports of clashes between Malian troops and Islamists in the Mopti area came in.

Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore said earlier Wednesday he was confident of an imminent agreement.

"As mediator in the Mali crisis, I will be inviting the transitional government, armed rebel movements and other figures to the Burkinabe capital of Ouagadougou in the coming days to continue talks and reach a framework agreement," said Compaore.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered Wednesday on the streets of Mali's capital, Bamako, and the southwestern city of Kati, calling for the liberation of the north and the resignation of Mali's interim president.

Demonstrators in Bamako set car tyres alight and divided the city in two by obstructing traffic on two of the three bridges that link it over the Niger River.

In Kati, youths mounted barricades, cut off traffic and chanted slogans demanding Traore's departure.

The government later announced it was indefinitely closing all schools in both towns.

Because of the protests the weekly cabinet meeting was postponed until Thursday "for security reasons".

The ministry for internal security said one person was wounded and hospitalised in Bamako. Six other people were detained.

Mali has been cut in two since March last year, when Islamist fighters capitalised on a power vacuum created by a military coup in Bamako to seize control of the north.

Talks initially planned for Thursday between the Malian government and two of the armed groups in the north -- Ansar Dine and the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) -- were dropped to give all parties more time to prepare.

Ansar Dine and the MNLA, an ethnic-Tuareg separatist group, are homegrown movements that mediators hope can be persuaded to reject the more hardline Islamists who have been their sometime allies.

The Economic Community of West African States has 3,300 troops on standby for a mission to reclaim northern Mali that received the approval of the UN Security Council on December 20.

But no timetable has been given for an intervention and senior UN officials have warned no deployment will take place before September.

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