After months of destabilization caused by war, Mali has signed a ceasefire with separatist Tuareg rebels who hold towns in the remote north – clearing the way for national elections to be held in July.
“The agreement provides for an immediate ceasefire, paves the way for the holding of presidential elections nationwide and commits the parties to discussing sustainable peace in Mali,” said a spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon after 10 days of negotiations in nearby Burkina Faso.
Under the deal, Malian troops would gradually begin to occupy the northern stronghold of Kidal, now held by various Tuareg rebels groups.
Tension between Malian authorities and Tuareg rebels have been a lingering problem since the French Army intervened in Mali last January.
The French stopped a rapid movement of Al Qaeda-linked radicals from the north into the south amid fears that the ungoverned space could become a new Afghanistan-style launching pad for terrorism.
Within weeks, most of the Islamic radicals were scattered by the French and driven to the mountains in the far north of the nation. But left behind were Tuareg rebels that had long desired to create a state of their own.
Tuesday’s agreement, mediated between Mali and Tuaregs by a complement of representatives from the EU, UN, and Burkina Faso, was hailed as an important first step in putting the divided West African nation back together again.
The agreement has “historical significance” said European Union policy chief Catherine Ashton to Agence France Press.
Mali’s lead negotiator Tiébilé Dramé said the two sides had overcome their greatest differences.
"I think we can say that the biggest task is finished. We have agreed on the essentials," he told the Associated Press. "There is an international consensus as well as a Malian consensus on the fundamental questions, which include the integrity of our territory, national unity, and the secular and republican nature of our state.''
Moussa Ag Attaher, a spokesperson for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), confirmed Tuareg rebel support for the new accord, telling AP that, "The MNLA and the High Council for the Azawad have given everything for peace and so we accept this accord."
The extent to which the cease-fire is really a breakthrough of “historic significance” remains to be seen and questions remain regarding how the accord will be implemented.
Along with a return of the Army to Kidal, the deal also calls for the eventual disarmament of the MNLA and the High Council for the Azawad, the two main rebel groups in control of the region.
Initial press statements suggest the two sides may still have different interpretations of the details, with one rebel spokesman suggesting to France24 that the MNLA will not disarm before elections.
International donors that last month pledged billions of dollars in reconstruction money have pushed for July elections.
Yet there is no guarantee a newly elected government in Bamako will honor the terms of a deal reached by Mali’s current government – which is an unelected, interim regime where the president, prime minister and key figures from a military junta are all vying for power.
Another potential sticking point are arrest warrants recently issued by Malian authorities against MNLA chiefs who have been accused of committing war crimes.
Mali, once thought to be a model of democracy in Africa, descended into chaos last year when mid-ranking officers toppled a twice elected government in the southern capital of Bamako. The MNLA capitalized on the ensuing chaos, fighting alongside an alliance of Islamist rebel groups to drive the Malian army from Mali’s desert north.
The Tuareg separatists were quickly sideline by their Islamist allies of convenience, and militants linked to Al Qaeda soon consolidated control over a swath of territory roughly the size of Texas.
France intervened decisively in January when Islamist rebels launched an ambitious push southward from their northern strongholds. With the help of African allies, France succeeded in driving the Islamist forces from the major towns and cities once under their control.
As Islamist rebels fled Kidal, the MNLA returned to the city in February and began establishing a de facto Tuareg state - including setting up roadblocks and issuing documents from the “State of Azawad,” all achieved with French complicity.