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Bamako - Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure warned of a tougher government line against Tuareg rebels following a raid on an army base in which at least 20 people were killed, press reports said on Monday.
"Enough is enough. We cannot continue to suffer, we cannot keep counting our dead... We cannot keep searching for peace," Toure said on Sunday during a visit to the Kayes region.
"They are firing on anything that moves. They are firing on soldiers, they're firing on civilians, what does all this mean?" the president added in comments that analysts said could mean a harder line.
An attack by rebels on an army base at Nampala, 500 kilometres (300 miles) northeast of of the capital Bamako, left at least nine troops and 11 rebels dead, according to the defence ministry.
A source close to rebel chief Abrahim Ag Bahanga said at least 20 soldiers were killed and and an international aid official said at least five civilians were also killed in the fighting.
Toure said the Nampala base had no strategic importance but highlighted that it was "close to the different routes and paths that take drugs across the Sahara-Sahel strip".
The president said the rebels were a "band of marginals" who were "isolated from the heart of the Tuareg community".
He said at least three or four Tuaregs were among the government troops killed.
Questioned by AFP, a defence ministry official linked Saturday's clashes to the drug traffickers, saying soldiers had recognised the vehicles involved.
Ag Bahanga has called for the army to leave the nearby town of Tinezawaten.
The army has refused, saying it is used by drug traffickers with whom Ag Bahanga is accused of being involved.
The attacks came days after Toure called on the desert rebels to lay down their arms and agree on a new peace deal.
Ag Bahanga's forces regrouped recently in the mountainous regions close to the Algerian and Mauritanian borders and are calling on the government to honour a 2006 agreement.
In the deal, rebels dropped their demand for autonomy for the Kidal region after the government pledged to speed up economic development.
But in his latest comments, Toure said the government has about 25 million dollars to spend on development but needed "security" to start projects.
The Tuaregs have roamed the southern Sahara for centuries. In recent years, they have staged uprisings in both Mali and Niger claiming autonomy for their traditional homeland. - AFP