Nouakchott — Secular Touaregs are taking on al-Qaeda-linked Islamists occupying northern Mali.
A terror group occupying northern Mali claimed victory over secular Touareg rebels attempting to dislodge them, AFP reported Sunday (November 18th).
The Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) said they repelled an attack by the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which launched the offensive aimed at retaking Gao on Friday.
The MNLA fighters attacked MUJAO's Osama bin Laden Battalion led by Abu Walid Sahraoui, which was reportedly backed up by 300 fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Friday's confrontations continued throughout the day near Menga village, Ansongo and towards Gao, according to journalist Outhman Ag Aweisoun. He told Magharebia that heavy weapons were used by MUJAO, which received support from AQIM's El Moulethemine battalion with 16 cross-desert vehicles armed with their own heavy weaponry.
A cautious ceasefire was observed Saturday morning after a number of fighters were killed and wounded on both sides. A final death toll could not be obtained due to conflicting accounts given by the leaders of both groups.
However, AFP cited Malian and Burkinabe security sources as saying that the MNLA suffered heavy losses at the hands of MUJAO, including scores of dead fighters as well as lost equipment and vehicles.
"We're still steadfast on the fronts to maintain our strategic positions," Hmata, a MNLA fighter told Magharebia. "Although MUJAO received military support from al-Qaeda in Timbuktu, this won't intimidate us and we're determined to recover all Azawad cities. We're now waiting for support from some of our units in Kidal suburbs."
In a statement, the MNLA denied any losses in its ranks. It also claimed to have killed 55 MUJAO members, according to AFP.
Mauritanian analyst Cheikh Ould Mohamed Harma said that the "MNLA in particular wants today more than ever to attract attention to it as an effective force in combating terrorism in the Azawad region so as to impose itself as a part of solution to the Malian crisis."
Abdalahi Ould Ahmed, editor-in-chief of Chouhoud, noted that the two groups clashed back in June, leaving 35 dead.
"MUJAO is currently going through a crisis, and is heading towards demobilisation and a split," Nigerien Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum said November 14th in Paris.
Bazoum's comments came just days after a senior leader from the terror group defected, handing himself in to Nigerien authorities in Niamey. Hicham Bilal was once the MUJAO commander in Gao.
Then on November 16th, the Islamic prefect of Gao, Aliou Mahamar, was arrested by the terror group while attempting to leave the city. According to Sidiki Traore, a teacher in Gao, the prefect was "arrested by MUJAO leaders because he wanted to flee".
"All of MUJAO's Malian fighters have left Gao. Since the post-Tabaski [Eid al-Adha] celebrations, they haven't been seen. We only see Pakistani youths in our city now. They're the ones who are enforcing Islamic order here," Traore said.