Mali's army moved closer Saturday to the strategically important northern town of Kidal that is held by Touareg separatist and rebel groups, army and political sources said.
Since seizing power in a coup in 2020 the African country's military rulers have made a priority of re-establishing sovereignty over all regions and Kidal could become a key battleground.
"We are a few dozen kilometres (miles) from Kidal," an army officer told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are continuing our progress to secure the whole territory."
Two local elected representatives, also speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said there was fighting near Kidal.
"Fighting has started -- there's a lot of shooting," one said, adding that large numbers of fighters from the Russian Wagner group, which the ruling junta called in two years ago, were on the ground.
Another local official said "civilians are fleeing the city. We have to expect a lengthy conflict."
AFP could not independently check the claims. Separatist rebels cut the telephone network at Kidal on Friday in apparent anticipation of an attack following several days of airstrikes.
The army had Thursday announced on social media the start of what it termed "strategic movements aimed at securing and eradicating all terrorist threats in the Kidal region."
A large military convoy stationed at Anefis, some 110 kilometres to the south, set off towards Kidal.
Touareg rebels took up arms again in August and the 25,000 people in the desert region town have been braced for a confrontation since.
The Touaregs previously launched an insurgency in 2012, inflicting humiliating defeats on the army before agreeing to a ceasefire in 2014 and a peace deal in 2015.
The uprising in 2012 coincided with insurgencies by radical Islamist groups.
The withdrawal of a UN peacekeeping mission since the army took power has added to instability.
One officer spoke Saturday of fighting near to a Kidal camp which the UN force recently vacated.