Tuareg fighters in Mali have abducted three government soldiers in the centre of the country, local officials say, in the largest Tuareg offensive since a 2009 rebellion demanding autonomy for the nomadic community.

"[Tuareg] rebels showed up on Friday in eight vehicles in the town of Tenenkou. They abducted three [army] guards and also took four service vehicles," Ely Toure, an official of the Mopti region, told AFP news agency on Friday.

"No shots were fired," Toure said, adding that "the rebels immediately left the area”.

Moussa Guindo, one of the town’s elected officials, said: "They came in a small convoy. They took some official vehicles as well as abducting three soldiers."

Mali crisis

The abductions are the latest in a series of attacks by the fighters since mid-January when several towns were raided and tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes.

Rights group Amnesty International said that the military offensive was causing the worst humanitarian and human rights crisis in the country in twenty years.

The nomadic Tuareg community, of various tribes scattered between Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali and Niger, have been fighting for recognition of their identity and for an independent state with uprisings in the 1960s, 1990s and early 2000 with several resurgences between 2006 and 2009.

Doctors Without Borders said in a statement on Wednesday that Malian refugees, who have been forced to seek refuge in the border region of Mauritania due to the conflict, now face the threat of food shortages.

"We are in the middle of the desert in an area where water is a scarce commodity," said Marie-Christine Férir, a Doctors Without Borders emergency co-ordinator in Mali.

"Even more alarming, these people are isolated here. The nearest hospital is six hours away by road."

Source: Agencies