OUAGADOUGOU (AFP) – Mali’s rebel Tuaregs said Tuesday they were ready to sign a deal that would pave the way for Bamako to hold nationwide polls next month but the interim authorities demanded further amendments.
Rebels from the MNLA and HCUA groups, that want autonomy for the northern Tuareg homeland they call Azawad, said they were prepared to ink a document put forward by regional mediator Burkina Faso.
“We won’t obstruct the process,” an official in the Tuareg delegation told AFP. “When the time comes, we’ll sign no problem.”
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) controls the key northern town of Kidal and has been reluctant to let government troops step in to secure the planned July 28 presidential ballot.
The election is seen as a key step in Mali’s recovery from a crisis that saw Al Qaeda-linked groups take over the northern half of the country for nine months on the back of a March 2012 coup.
Former colonial power France, which sent in troops in January this year to pin back Islamist militants threatening to advance on the capital, has supported the interim administration’s July 28 election target.
The transitional government that took over from the junta in Bamako said it was also ready to sign the deal but added it wanted a few changes made.
“We are ready to sign the peace deal Wednesday if the other party takes into account some amendments that don’t distort the original text,” a government official said on condition of anonymity.
“We’re optimistic,” the official told AFP.
The draft accord was submitted to both sides on Tuesday by Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore, who was appointed lead mediator by regional body ECOWAS early on in the Mali crisis.
The disastrous sequence that plunged one of western Africa’s success stories into chaos began in January 2012, when the MNLA launched a military offensive against the government.
Flush with weapons following the return of Tuareg mercenaries who fought alongside slain Libyan tyrant Moamer Kadhafi, the group made quick gains.
But powerful Al Qaeda-linked groups that have been running smuggling rings in the Sahel desert piggybacked the Tuareg offensive and soon overpowered the MNLA to seize control of the Malian north and impose an extreme form of Islamic law.
French troops have in five months reclaimed most lost territory but analysts have warned that Malian soldiers and a UN mission of African forces would struggle to contain Islamist fighters without support from Paris.
The MNLA sided with France during the worst of the fighting this year but it has been reluctant to allow government troops into its Kidal bastion for the election.
The latest Ouagadougou talks follow heavy fighting which erupted last week when the army launched an attack in Anefis, a town south of Kidal, following reports that the light-skinned Tuaregs had been arresting and expelling black Malians in the city.
The army said 30 rebel soldiers were killed. The MNLA claimed that several army vehicles were destroyed and the men aboard them killed.
“There is a lot of distrust at the moment, particularly after the latest events at Anefis,” Burkinabe Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole said on Monday.
Compaore has said the Malian parties must agree on the “redeployment of general administration, basic social services, defence and security forces to the north of Mali and in particular to Kidal”.
The mediation has proposed a gradual return of the Malian army in the city and the billeting of rebel troops.
It has also suggested that French and UN troops could supervise the Malian military’s operations to assuage Tuareg fears of reprisals by government forces.
Rights groups have warned against the risk of retaliatory action by pro-government troops who blame the Tuareg rebellion for last year’s disastrous scenario, which saw Al Qaeda groups impose a deadly brand of Islamic law in the areas under their control.