Tuareg separatists and Malian soldiers have exchanged fire in the northern town of Kidal, residents and the regional governor said, in a sign of escalating tensions three days after MNLA rebels ended a ceasefire with the newly elected government.

As I speak a lot of shots are being fired in Kidal. Armed men are shooting and the Malian soldiers have retaliated.

Adama Kaissoko, Regional Governor

The firefight follows two attacks on soldiers since Tuareg rebels claiming autonomy for northern Mali pulled out of the talks on Thursday, dealing a blow to hopes of a durable peace in the troubled west African nation.

"As I speak a lot of shots are being fired in Kidal. Armed men are shooting and the Malian soldiers have retaliated," Adama Kamissoko, the regional governor, told AFP by telephone from the city as the fighting broke out.

The exchange ended more than an hour later with "some wounded", a close aide of Kamissoko said, although it was not immediately clear whether the casualties were soldiers or rebels.

Kamissoko's office said the gunmen were separatist rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the main Tuareg group involved in the peace talks.

"Fighters from the MNLA came armed into the city centre, not far from a bank where there were Malian troops. They never wanted the army around. The army fired warning shots, and a firefight began," a source in the office said.

However, a spokesman for the rebel group said it was the soldiers who opened fire on an MNLA vehicle, injuring three men inside.

The incident in Kidal - the birthplace of a Tuareg uprising last year that sent Mali into chaos - came two days after a grenade attack outside the same bank in which two Malian soldiers were wounded.

"Our fighters are now on high alert," said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a Paris-based spokesman for the MNLA.

Residents said that calm returned to the town as night fell.

Imposing control

A Malian intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, said the clashes coincided with the arrival of more army troops from the nearby town of Anefis.

The military is trying to reimpose its control over northern Mali.

"Now the town is surrounded by Malian forces, which are taking advantage of the situation to take back some positions occupied by the rebels," the official said.

MNLA fighters had agreed to remain in barracks in Kidal under a June ceasefire deal to allow presidential elections to go ahead in the remote region.

The group broke off the deal on Thursday. It accused President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who won August's presidential runoff, of not honouring the terms of the agreement, which called for peace talks within two months of him taking office.

Source: Agencies