A fresh outbreak of fighting between the Arab and Kounta tribes in the semi-desert of eastern Mali has left 13 people dead, according to residents in the nearby town of Gao.
They told IRIN that the clash took place on 11 September at a well near Bamba, a small town on the river Niger, 220 km west of Gao.
The incident followed a jailbreak in Gao five days earlier by 16 Arabs and Kountas who had been imprisoned in connection with a previous outbreak of fighting between the two communities, they noted.
Banditry and violence have been on the rise in eastern Mali for several months and have begun to affect the work of humanitarian agencies operating in the area.
Last June, two four-wheel-drive vehicles of the Malian Red Cross were hijacked near Bourem, another town on the River Niger in the same area.
And on 12 September, the day after the latest fighting between Arabs and Kountas, another vehicle belonging to the Canadian non-governmental organisation SUCO (Solidarity, Union Cooperation), was stolen by two armed men wearing turbans in Gao itself.
The vehicle was attached to a micro-credit scheme that helps poor people to establish their own small businesses, SUCO officials said.
The Kounta are fair-skinned people of Arabic descent who are known for their religious learning. Many are marabouts - Islamic religious leaders who also practice magic and traditional medicine.
The people known as Arabs in eastern Mali are similar in appearance, but are mainly traders and nomadic herdsmen.
Both communities inhabit the desert wastes between Timbuktoo and Gao on the river Niger and the town of Kidal in the Adrar des Iforahs mountain range further north, near the Algerian border.
There has been sporadic fighting between the Arabs and Kountas in this area for the past five years. This has often resulted in heavy casualties. President Amadou Toumani Toure intervened personally in 2003 to try to stop the feud, whose origins are much older.
Government officials in Gao refused to comment on the latest incident, but the Malian state news agency reported that a group of heavily armed Arab fighters travelling aboard four four-wheel drive vehicles attacked the Kounta marabout Kounta Ould Haital and a group of his followers at a desert well.
Eastern Mali has long been a lawless area plagued by bandits and smugglers.
The Islamic fundamentalist group which kidnapped a group of European tourists in southern Algeria last year, took refuge in the Idrar des Iforahs mountains of eastern Mali before releasing its 14 remaining hostages there in August 2003.
One retired soldier who formerly served in the troubled area blamed the Malian government for withdrawing its security forces from too many remote outposts following a 1992 peace agreement which marked the first step towards ending a rebellion by Touareg nomads in the region.
Mohamed Baye, the parliamentary deputy for Bourem, where the latest clash took place, echoed this sentiment.
”Given the situation, only the return of garrisons and security posts can contribute to the return of stability and put an end to the carnage between the communities,” he told IRIN.
The US government, worried about the possible infiltration of Muslim fundamentalist terrorists into northern Mali, sent military instructors to train the Malian army in anti-terrorist warfare techniques in Gao earlier this year. Washington also provided the Malian army with all-terrain vehicles and other equipment specially designed for desert warfare.