Bamako (AFP) Sept 18, 2010
Mauritania threw combat aircraft Saturday into a battle in northern Mali to drive back militants loyal to Al-Qaeda, security sources said, amid reports that its troops had suffered heavy losses.
France meanwhile, sought to distance itself from any involvement in the fighting, as it continued the search for seven foreigners, including five French nationals, abducted from neighbouring Niger on Thursday and who are now believed to be held captive in the Malian desert.
"The Mauritanians have engaged at least two combat aircraft with the aim of gaining the upper hand, which they have not had so far," the source said.
A local resident, Hamine Ould Mohamed Aly, told AFP that he had seen two planes fly over near the scene of the fighting at Raz-El-Ma, 235 kilometres (150 miles) west of Timbuktu in northern Mali.
Speaking by satellite telephone, he also said he had seen six burned out Mauritanian army vehicles beside a well.
A Malian security source said the warplanes forced the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militants to flee.
"The fighting has stopped, that's what we've been able to determine on the ground," the source told AFP.
"The Mauritanian warplanes which flew over the area forced the militants to flee."
In its first official confirmation of the clashes, which started Friday, the Mauritanian defence ministry said it had acted to prevent an attack on one of its positions.
"Our armed forces spotted a group of terrorists on board a column of armed vehicles, which were moving towards our border ... with the clear intention of attacking one of our positions," it said in a statement.
It said the pre-emptive attack resulted in the death of 12 militants with an unknown number of wounded, and put the toll on its troops as six dead and eight wounded.
The statement did not provide any details about the location of the attacks and did not mention the use of warplanes.
An Algerian security official in the region said however that the Mauritanians suffered "very many casualties", including "at least 15" killed.
"The Islamists lost at least five people and others were wounded," the Algerian official said, adding they had captured five or more Mauritanian vehicles.
A local representative in northern Mali also told AFP that nomadic tribesmen in the region had reported "many" Mauritanian soldiers dead.
Separate sources in Mali and Mauritania told AFP that a senior lieutenant of AQIM leader Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was leading Qaeda forces in their battle.
"It's Yahya Abou Hamame, a lieutenant of Abou Zeid, who is leading the operations against the Mauritanian army," one Malian deputy from the north of the country, said by phone from the capital Bamako.
"More than 70 percent of his forces are of Mauritanian nationality," he added.
A Mauritanian security source confirmed the information.
Abou Zeid runs the Islamist AQIM cell that killed British hostage Edwin Dyer in May 2009 and was also behind the death of French hostage Michel Germaneau in July.
Security sources have also pointed to Abou Zeid as a possible mastermind of Thursday's abductions of seven foreigners in northern Niger, who security sources later reported had been taken across the border to northern Mali.
France denied the raid was linked to the kidnapping.
"There are no French forces in the field," a foreign ministry spokesman in Paris said, adding that the fighting was "independent" of the kidnapping.
On Thursday gunmen seized an employee of the French nuclear group Areva and his wife, both French; plus three French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan, employed by Satom, a subsidiary of construction giant Vinci.
They snatched the victims from their homes near Areva's uranium mine at Arlit, 800 kilometres (500 miles) northeast of Niger's capital Niamey.
The French foreign ministry said it could not be definitive about who the kidnappers were, despite concerns that they might be linked to AQIM.
A Mauritanian military source also said French forces were not directly involved in Saturday's offensive.
But locals in the Kidal region, 1,600 kilometres northeast of Bamako, said they had seen a French reconnaissance aircraft overflying the area.
"It's true that allies, especially the French, have given us valuable information for the operation but they are not at our side," the Mauritanian source told AFP.
Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure told Radio France Internationale his country had allowed all neighbouring countries to engage the fighters, but that his country's troops had stayed out of the battle.
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