Mauritanian troops kill 12 al-Qa'ida members in clash

Mauritanian military forces killed 12 members of al-Qa'ida's North African wing and suffered two casualties in fighting in the desert border zone flanking Mali, a Mauritanian security source said today.

Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the chief suspect in Thursday's kidnapping of seven foreigners, including five French citizens, in Niger on Thursday but two separate security sources in the region said the latest fighting was unrelated.

Mauritanian forces had encircled around 20 AQIM vehicles in the border area and the fighting continued on Saturday, the Mauritanian source told Reuters.

"The operation was launched because the opportunity presented itself. It was not planned long in advance," said a second security source in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott with knowledge of the background to the mission.

The clashes escalated the battle between Saharan countries and AQIM after a spate of kidnappings followed by demands for ransoms that are thought to be financing an expansion of the militants' presence in the remote desert zones.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner accused AQIM of carrying out Thursday's abductions in northern Niger and has appealed to countries of the region to do all they can to secure their release. So far AQIM has not claimed the kidnappings.

Niger's military launched a search for the hostages but a source in its military told Reuters the assailants had crossed into neighbouring Mali.