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Fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during a hostage handover in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali, in April.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Growing reports of clashes between Islamist rebels and Mali's army are giving new urgency to a meeting in Ottawa where the president of the African Union could ask for Canada's military help in fighting the rebels.

One unconfirmed report said the rebels have captured 12 of Mali's soldiers in the skirmishes, along with their vehicles and weapons. But there are virtually no journalists in the conflict zone in central Mali, and the reports have been confused and contradictory.

The rebels are reported to have advanced towards Malian army positions near the towns of Mopti and Sevare in central Mali, but it was unclear whether it was a serious offensive or merely a bluff. If confirmed, it would be the first major offensive by the rebels since they captured all of northern Mali last April.

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A show of strength by the rebels might be aimed at bolstering their power in scheduled negotiations with Mali's weakened government. But the clashes could also accelerate Western efforts to help Mali fight the radical militia groups.

The European Union is already assembling a unit of 250 troops to train Mali's army, and a West African force of more than 3,000 troops is also being gathered, with approval from the United Nations Security Council.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is meeting on Tuesday with the African Union president, Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin, and the crisis in Mali could be on the agenda.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has said Canada might provide training to help Mali launch a military campaign against the Islamist radical groups that control the northern two-thirds of Mali, where they have imposed a harsh version of sharia law, forcing women to wear veils and amputating the hands of alleged thieves.

Foreign Minister John Baird, however, has said Canada will not send troops to Mali.

Some of the key rebel groups have been negotiating with the Malian government in the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso. But last week a leading Islamist group, Ansar Dine, said it was ending its ceasefire with the government. Soon after, there were unconfirmed reports that the Islamists were moving southward in convoys of vehicles.

On Monday, reports suggested that Malian soldiers were firing on the advancing rebels, who had moved to within about 40 kilometres of Mopti and Sevare. But the reports were contradictory, with some suggesting that the Malian army had only fired "warning shots" or long-distance weapons. There were no reports of casualties.

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The manoeuvring by the rebel groups seems to be aimed at putting pressure on the Malian government without necessarily triggering a major battle. Rebel units have been spotted at several locations along the rough border between northern Mali and central Mali, reports said.

Robert Fowler, the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations who was kidnapped by al-Qaeda radicals and held in northern Mali in late 2008 and early 2009, is calling on Canada to provide military help to Mali to battle the rebels.

"Our African friends so desperately need our assistance in stopping the threat of a jihadist takeover of northern Africa," Mr. Fowler wrote in The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.

"We know full well that neither a somewhat better-trained Malian army nor a voluntarily funded light brigade drawn from a dozen African nations stands any hope of eradicating the jihadi threat on their own."

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