Malian Tuareg soldiers loyal to El-Hadj Gamou listen during a visit by Mali's army chief of staff in Kidal. File picture: Rebecca Blackwell

Bamako - Tuareg separatists said on Thursday they had seized several towns in northern Mali after routing government forces in fighting that threatens to plunge the desert north back into war, but said they would respect calls for a ceasefire.

The army had launched an offensive to retake control of the separatist stronghold of Kidal after clashes erupted while Prime Minister Moussa Mara was visiting the town on Saturday.

Tuareg separatists repulsed the attempt on Wednesday and on Thursday said they had taken more northern towns without a fight after government troops either abandoned their positions and sought refuge at the camps of the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, or fled south.

“We now control Anefis, Aguelhok, Tessalit, Menaka, Ansongo, Anderamboukane and Lere,” Attaye Ag Mohamed, an official with the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), told Reuters by telephone from Kidal.

“We are going to hold our positions. We will heed the call from the international community, which has asked us to ceasefire. We also note that the Malian government has called for an immediate ceasefire,” Attaye said.

After the fighting, MINUSMA gave shelter to 62 government soldiers at its camp in Kidal and 290 at Aguelhok. In the last few days it has treated 20 wounded, of whom two were in a serious condition, the UN mission said in a statement.

“Grave violations of human rights were committed during the fighting in Kidal,” it said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the French government has called for an immediate cessation of fighting and the resumption of dialogue.

“MINUSMA is working in coordination with key international partners to develop a potential series of measures to formalise the ceasefire in the country and encourage the parties to bring about a return to the political process,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

Mali's government issued a statement on Wednesday ordering an immediate ceasefire. It said that, while its troops initially held the upper hand, they were weakened by co-ordination and intelligence problems.

A parliamentarian from the region, Algabass Ag Intallah, said Malian troops had pulled out of several towns and a Malian military source said the army was withdrawing from areas where it was outnumbered.

The military failure is a setback for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's government and threatens to sink a struggling process to resolve the cycle of Tuareg rebellions in the north.

Mali was plunged into chaos in 2012 after Tuareg independence fighters teamed up with groups teamed up with groups linked to al-Qaeda to seize the north following a coup in the capital.

When they were sidelined by the better-equipped Islamists, the separatists broke with their allies. A French-led military operation then drove the Islamists back last year.

Neighbouring Burkina Faso's foreign minister, Djibril Bassolé, who has served as a mediator in Mali, told French radio RFI: “There is a danger that the same phenomenon as in 2012 can happen again.”

Rinaldo Depagne, West African programmes director at the conflict prevention think tank International Crisis Group, said: “It's not only that (Keita) lost part of the north, he's lost part of his authority in the south.”

The ease with which the MNLA repelled government forces, some of whom were trained and equipped by the European Union as part of efforts to rebuild the army, has raised concerns that it may now be renewing its alliance with Islamist groups.

Four rebel soldiers died in the fighting and eight were wounded, Moussa Ag Assarid of the MLNA told Reuters. - Reuters