Heavy weapon attacks in Mali
Kidal -Sporadic heavy weapons fire rang out in the northern Malian town of Kidal on Saturday, a sure sign that a Tuareg-led rebellion was nearing its most significant target to date after two weeks of fighting.
Rebels combining veteran Tuareg insurgents and returnees from Libya's war last year are fighting to create an independent state in north Mali.
They have gained ground in a three-pronged advance, scattering thousands across Mali's desert north and beyond its borders, but Kidal is the most significant town yet to be threatened.
A Europe-based spokesperson for the rebels, Hama Ag Sid'Ahmed, said the attack had already begun.
"We will take the two military camps and occupy the town."
However military sources in Kidal and the capital, Bamako, said the sound of gunfire came from army units warding off a rebel attack following rumours that the MNLA would strike at some stage on Saturday.
Civilians fearing an attack have been fleeing Kidal by bus in recent days.
Some Tuareg say many of their community have also fled Bamako, in the south, fearing reprisals after violent demonstrations this week.
About 3 500 people had crossed westwards into Mauritania, said a Mauritanian official.