Bamako - One of the Islamist groups that seized northern Mali earlier this year was claiming victory Sunday over Tuareg fighters who tried to dislodge them, residents and a spokesperson for the group said.
A statement from the Tuareg group denied they had lost any of their fighters, insisting instead that they had killed dozens of Islamists.
Fighters of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Muhao) near the town of Gao, in the northeast, celebrated what they said was their win over Tuareg rebels late on Sunday.
"They are firing in the air and saying Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar [God is greater], we have won," one resident told AFP.
A six-vehicle convoy of their fighters drove into the town from the north firing in the air "as if they had just come from the front", another witness told AFP.
The town of Gao and the region of the same name have been held by fighters of Mujao since June, when they chased out their former allies, Tuareg fighters of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA).
Abour Dardar, a leading figure inside Mujao, told AFP by telephone: "It's to celebrate our victory over the MLNA."
On Friday, MLNA fighters attacked the Islamist fighters but suffered a heavy defeat that saw about a dozen of their men killed, regional security sources said. Among those injured was a senior MLNA commander, security sources in both Mali and Burkina Faso added.
To prepare for a possible new offensive, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), which is linked to Mujao, sent about 300 reinforcements from Timbuktu, some 300km west of Gao, witnesses told AFP.
But in a statement sent to AFP, the MNLA denied having suffered any losses.