Bamako: Mali was in crisis Thursday after losing two northern towns including the rebel bastion of Kidal to Tuareg separatists in a humiliating defeat forcing the government to call for an "immediate ceasefire".
Ministers have not revealed how many lives have been lost in clashes with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and other armed groups across the vast desert north since fighting broke out on Saturday.
But an MNLA leader said 40 Malian soldiers had been killed and 70 taken prisoner, while 50 "brand new" 4x4s and 12 armoured vehicles had been seized along with several tonnes of weapons and ammunition.
In the latest military setback for the beleaguered force, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that MNLA fighters had taken Menaka, a town of 20,000 in eastern Mali, some 24 hours after the government admitted it had lost Kidal.
"The northern towns of Kidal and Menaka are now under the control of the MNLA, and MNLA movements in Anefis, Aguelhok and other locations have been reported," Dujarric said.
The distance between Kidal, capital of the region of the same name, and Menaka in the Gao region 350 kilometres (185 miles) to the south by road, underlines the extent of the offensive facing the army.
Dujarric said an estimated 3,400 residents of Kidal have fled the fighting.
Paris called 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 spokesman Romain Nadal.
The chairman of the African Union, Mauritania`s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, 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.
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 the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUC) was the main fighting force, adding that the MNLA and Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) also took part. The government claims 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, 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) 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 MINUSMA described Kidal as "calm" on Thursday.
But the violence has been met with hostility in Bamako and several regional towns, where critics have accused France and MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali, of apathy in the face of Tuareg aggression.
In an effort to contain growing resentment, the authorities have redoubled appeals to the public 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.
The government admitted the failure of the army and called for an "immediate cease-fire", appealing to Malians to demonstrate "a high sense of responsibility, to avoid any confusion or any stigmatisation" which could damage Malian unity or relations with international partners.
"MINUSMA, the Serval force and representatives of the international community do not need to worry. They are not our enemies," it said in a statement.
Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, speaking on the state-run ORTM television station, said figures were not yet available for the number of soldiers who had been killed or taken prisoner but added that the true number of captives was smaller than the rebels claimed.
The minister said Mali was considering seeking the support of soldiers from Operation Serval, deployed in January 2013 to dislodge Islamist militants who had been occupying northern Mali for 10 months.
"In Menaka, we have a relationship with the Serval force that is ready to positively consider our request for support.