Suspected Tuareg-led rebels have attacked a remote paramilitary outpost in Mali, kidnapping soldiers and seizing weapons, ammunition and vehicles, the government has said.
Two soldiers were wounded and about a dozen more kidnapped, an army source added, saying he believed the pre-dawn raid was carried out by a faction of the rebels who have been fighting a year-long insurgency in Mali's Saharan north.
Mali's Defence Ministry issued a statement confirming the attack but it said just three soldiers were seized.
Africa's third biggest gold producer is struggling to put down an escalating rebellion by light-skinned nomads who took up arms last year demanding greater rights for their people, who live in various countries across the Sahara.
"Armed men in a Toyota four-by-four launched a surprise attack on the brigade," the army source said. "Apart from one or two gendarmes who were wounded and left behind, they captured all the other gendarmes in the brigade."
The army source said the post in Tessalit, a town in Mali's Kidal region, which borders Algeria, would be manned by 15 to 20 soldiers.
"They took everything – arms, ammunition and vehicles," he added, saying he thought the gunmen were a breakaway faction of the rebellion.
While confirming the wounded, Mali's government said the number seized was lower. "During the night of July 18-29, an armed group broke into the gendarmerie and kidnapped three people. There was no loss of life."
The statement did not say who the ministry thought was responsible for the attack.
The Tuareg's main leader is Ibrahima Bahanga and Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure has said he is ready to negotiate but there have already been several fruitless agreements and dozens have been killed on both sides in recent months.
Algeria is hosting the latest round of talks to try and find an end to the conflict, which follows similar rebellions in the 1960s and 1990s.
Mali and Algeria are also discussing joint military patrols and the sharing of intelligence as the remote swathes of desert are home not only to Tuareg rebels but also al Qaeda militants and smugglers of arms, drugs and cigarettes.
Neighbouring Niger is battling its own Tuareg rebellion which has killed at least 200 rebels and 70 government soldiers over the last year. Rebels there are demanding a greater share of Niger's growing uranium revenues.