An Islamist group backed by Al-Qaeda's North African wing drove Tuareg rebels from a north Malian town Monday, as EU foreign ministers agreed in principle to send a training mission to support a military intervention.
In a blow to international efforts to try to resolve the crisis in the West African nation, fighters from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) "have just taken control of the locality of Menaka after a small clash with" ethnic Tuareg fighters of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), a regional source said.
Both sides confirmed the information, adding that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) rebels had fought alongside MUJAO in the clashes.
The fighting came after regional leaders agreed on a plan to reclaim the country's vast desert north through a military intervention and dialogue with two of the rebel groups active in the region.
European Union foreign ministers agreed in principle Monday to send a military training mission to Mali to support regional efforts to wrest back control of the Islamist-held north.
Under the plan, some 250 European officers would be sent to train Malian combat units and help restructure the country's weakened army, in a mission that could start as early as January and last through the year.
The officers would support a plan agreed to a week ago by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to send 3,300 troops into Mali to reclaim the north. The plan must go before the UN Security Council by the end of the month.
The international community has become increasingly concerned by the conflict in Mali's north, where the Islamists have been imposing harsh Islamic law, stoning people to death and amputating hands and feet from suspected thieves.
Western officials have expressed fears that northern Mali could become a haven for radicals and a base for attacks on Europe.
The homegrown Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) and the MNLA had announced on Friday they were ready for talks with Mali's government, with the latter group also trying to dislodge its Islamist rivals from the north in recent weeks.
The MNLA's setback Monday thus appears likely to hamper the negotiation efforts under way.
"MUJAO came with many AQIM fighters. They launched an attack, we resisted and later we left," said Moussa Salem, a fleeing MNLA fighter.
MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid, based in Paris, added that around 30 MUJAO and AQIM vehicles drove into Menaka before the attack.
MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui said his group "controls everything", adding it had received "reinforcement from its Muslim brothers" AQIM.
"We've taken prisoners and there were many deaths on the MNLA side," he said from Menaka, without elaborating.
A local resident said earlier that MUJAO fighters had "taken the military camp and are shouting Allah Akbar (God is great)".
The Tuaregs initially allied themselves with Islamist groups including MUJAO in their bid to seize northern Mali in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup in March.
But the alliance fell apart in June, and the Islamists have since chased the Tuaregs from territories they once held.
In recent weeks, the Tuaregs launched an offensive to reconquer these areas, and were planning to turn Menaka -- a town close to the Niger border and east of major northern town Gao -- into their base.
On Friday, MNLA rebels attacked the Islamist fighters but suffered a heavy defeat that saw about a dozen of their men killed, regional security sources said.
In a statement sent to AFP, the MNLA denied having suffered any losses but acknowledged that nine of its fighters had been wounded.
The MNLA also claimed the Islamists had fled having lost 55 of their fighters, with around 100 more wounded.
And on Sunday, MUJAO said it had repelled the Tuaregs from Gao.
Ansar Dine has said it is prepared to make some concessions and has agreed to talks with the interim Malian government set up to try to return the rule of law after the overthrow of president Amadou Toumani Toure's government on March 22.© ANP/AFP