Dozens of people -- some of them unarmed -- were killed in a remote part of northern Mali as Islamist fighters backed by Al-Qaeda's north African branch routed Tuareg rebels, a security source said Tuesday.
The Malian security source called the killings "a real massacre" and said the bodies of some of those slain in violence that began Friday still dotted the arid village of Menaka, in northeastern Mali's Gao region, just above the Niger border.
"Unarmed people were shot in cold blood," the source said. "There needs to be a genuine international investigation to find out what happened at Menaka."
Other witnesses and fighters confirmed that dozens had been killed.
The latest violence in northern Mali, in the hands of Islamist rebels since shortly after a March coup in Bamako, comes amid growing international momentum to reclaim the sparsely populated desert land.
A hodgepodge of Islamist and Tuareg groups, some homegrown, others foreign, have seen alliances rise and falter in the months of chaos.
Starting Friday, local Tuareg rebels who want to establish an independent homeland called Azawad battled with the Islamist group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is backed by Al-Qaeda's north African wing, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The fighting was focused in Ansongo, about 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of Menaka, and in Menaka itself, where the Tuareg rebels had hoped to establish a base from which to launch counter-offensives against the Islamists.
A lawmaker for the Menaka district, Bajan Ag Hamato, said some of his fellow Tuareg had been killed "defending the town against MUJAO", including local political leader Alwabegat Ag Salakatou and six of his entourage.
He said that although they had been labelled as members of the Tuareg rebels' Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), "in reality they were local patriots who wanted to defend their town".
It was not immediately possible to confirm who had been killed in the violence. A security source from Niger said four seriously injured MNLA fighters had been evacuated to Niger's capital Niamey.
The MNLA had previously claimed its fighters killed 65 MUJAO and AQIM members, suffering just one death and 13 injuries on its side, but MUJAO said it killed more than 100 MNLA fighters and took 20 prisoners.
The fighting picked up again Monday as the Islamist groups were bolstered by reinforcements, witnesses told AFP, saying the MNLA were chased from the town.
A regional security source on Tuesday said the Islamists controlled most of Menaka.
-- Nigeria offers 600 troops --
The MNLA initially fought alongside the Islamist groups now controlling northern Mali, but the more secular Tuareg fighters were soon sidelined.
The Islamists have imposed sharia law across the north, destroying ancient World Heritage Sites in Timbuktu, stoning a young unmarried couple to death, flogging drinkers and smokers and forcing women under the veil.
Mali was once considered one of west Africa's most stable democracies but the international community has become increasingly concerned by the conflict.
European Union foreign ministers on Monday agreed in principle to support a plan agreed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to send 3,300 troops into Mali to reconquer north.
And Nigeria, west Africa's regional powerhouse, pledged Tuesday to send about 600 troops to join the force.
The plan must go before the UN Security Council by the end of the month.
But while calling for a political solution to the crisis, UN special envoy for the Sahel region Romano Prodi said experts thought it could take until September 2013 for troops to be ready for deployment.
"It is necessary to prepare for military action to be credible. My mission is to do everything to ensure peace and avoid war," the former Italian premier said.
Facing the spectre of military action, two local groups, the MNLA and Ansar Dine, have said they are ready for talks with the Malian government to help resolve the crisis. But the Tuaregs' weakened position could hamper any bid for a peaceful resolution.
French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday said he opposed talks with groups "linked to terrorism" in Mali's north, but did not specify to which groups he was referring.
Hollande was speaking after meeting Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the president of Mauritania, Mali's northwestern neighbour. He added there had been "progress thanks to pressure from Africans themselves regarding the prospect of a military intervention".
Also Tuesday, one person was killed and three others injured as a rocket-propelled grenade they were carrying accidentally exploded in the courtyard of Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine, according to an elected official from the Kidal region north of Gao.© ANP/AFP