Bamako - Mali was in crisis on Friday after losing two northern towns including the rebel bastion of Kidal to Tuareg separatists, in a humiliating defeat that forced the government to call for an "immediate ceasefire".
About 20 Malian soldiers were killed and 30 wounded in fighting on Thursday that saw insurgents led by Tuareg rebels recapture the key northern town of Kidal, the defence minister said.
"There were dead and wounded on both sides," Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga told public television. "We counted around 30 wounded... and sadly around 20 dead."
A leader of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), said 40 Malian soldiers had been killed and 70 taken prisoner since hostilities began on Saturday, with dozens of vehicles seized along with several tonnes of weapons and ammunition.
And in the latest military setback for the beleaguered military, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said MNLA fighters had taken Menaka, a town of 20 000 in eastern Mali, shortly after the government admitted it had lost Kidal.
The distance between Kidal, capital of the region of the same name, and Menaka in the Gao region 350km to the south by road, underlines the extent of the offensive facing the army.
Dujarric said an estimated 3 400 residents of Kidal had fled the fighting.
'Open to dialogue'
The government admitted the failure of the army and called for an "immediate ceasefire".
It appealed to Malians to demonstrate "a high sense of responsibility, to avoid any confusion or any stigmatisation" which could damage unity or relations with international partners.
France called on Thursday for the cessation of hostilities in the rebel-infested north of its former colony, pressing for an urgent resumption of talks between rebel groups and Bamako.
"It is essential that hostilities cease and inclusive talks start," said foreign ministry spokesperson Romain Nadal.
The chairperson of the African Union, Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, also called on the crisis to be resolved with dialogue after he cut short a visit to Rwanda to travel to Bamako.
"We must make every necessary effort to soothe tempers... We will continue to surmount problems with dialogue," he said Thursday after a press conference in the Malian capital.
Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita reiterated that the authorities were ready for discussion. "We have always been open to dialogue," he said.
The Malian army has been pinned back since Saturday by a coalition of several armed groups, including Tuareg separatists.
An African security source told AFP that the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUC) was the main fighting force, and that the MNLA and another rebel militia, the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), were also taking part.
Hostility in Bamako
The government says the rebel assault is being backed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and "drug traffickers", a claim rejected by the Tuareg fighters.
The most violent clashes took place outside the regional governor's office in Kidal, 1 500km northeast of Bamako.
The town is the cradle of Mali's Tuareg separatist movement, which claims independence for a vast swathe of northern desert it calls "Azawad" and has launched several rebellions since the 1960s.
The MNLA has been in de facto control of the town since a French-led military intervention codenamed Operation Serval liberated northern Mali from the grasp of Islamists who had captured its towns and cities in a sweeping offensive in 2012.
Residents contacted by AFP and a source from the UN peacekeeping force MINUSMA described Kidal as "calm" on Thursday.
But the violence has been met with anger in Bamako and several regional towns, where critics have accused France and MINUSMA of apathy in the face of Tuareg aggression.
In an effort to contain growing resentment, the authorities have redoubled public appeals for calm and restraint, insisting that "dialogue" is their priority.
Militants exchanged fire with Malian soldiers over several hours on Wednesday, gaining a decisive upper hand.