UN peacekeepers repel rebel attack in Timbuktu

An MNLA fighter in Kidal, northern Mali, on 27 July 2013 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Tuareg rebels have been in conflict with the government since independence

Swedish peacekeepers in Mali say they have repelled a rebel attack on Timbuktu twice in two days.

Heavily armed rebels in trucks fitted with machine guns retreated north of the city on Wednesday, a Swedish commander told the BBC.

Fighting has also intensified in other parts of the country in recent days.

A pro-government militia said it had recaptured the eastern town of Menaka, while a coalition of Tuareg rebels claimed to have taken the town of Lere.

The group, known as the Coordination of Movements for Azawad, made the claim on Twitter. It also said it was behind the murder of three people in a Malian military camp in Goundam early on Wednesday.

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Reports of the rebel offensives have worried civilians in Timbuktu, despite the presence of peacekeepers, the BBC's Alex Duval Smith reports from Mali.

''People are frightened and expect a rebel attack," one resident told the BBC. "At nightfall I saw a column of United Nations armoured vehicles with soldiers from Burkina Faso drive towards the northern outskirts.

"I hope they spend the night there. The danger is coming from the north.''

Swedish Lt Col Carl-Magnus Svensson, whose troops are part of a UN peacekeeping mission, said they had exchanged fire with rebels on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, he said both sides were in tense a stand-off at a distance of about 200 metres, after which the rebels retreated.

"They could see they were in an inferior position, and retreated," he added.

Timbuktu and the north of Mali were taken over by rebels allied with jihadist groups in 2012. France intervened in January 2013 and the UN began deploying 10,000 peacekeepers in July of that year.

Peace negotiations have been complicated by the rebels' widely differing agendas.

They include secessionist Tuaregs, religious extremists and armed militias vying for control of lucrative trafficking routes.

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