Mali signed a ceasefire deal with Tuareg separatist rebels on Tuesday, paving the way for government troops to return to the northern, rebel-held town of Kidal before a presidential election next month.
At the heart of a region plagued by poverty and Islamic militancy, Mali won a 3.25 billion euros ($4.35 billion) Western aid package last month aimed at shoring up democracy and helping it recover from a coup and an al-Qaeda insurgency.
The agreement - reached after nearly two weeks of talks mediated by regional powers, the UN and the EU - foresees rebel groups disarming as part of a broader peace process to resolve Tuaregs’ longstanding demands for greater autonomy for northern Mali.
“The signing of this agreement represents a significant step in the stabilisation process in Mali,” UN Special Representative to Mali Bert Koenders, who attended the signing ceremony in neighbouring Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, said.
The government in the capital Bamako has made clear that it wants its civilian administration and army reinstated in the rebel stronghold before the July 28 vote, which is meant to complete a democratic transition after the coup of March 2012.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton both welcomed the accord. “I call on all sides in Mali, united by this deal, to implement this agreement in its entirety for the greater good of their country,” Fabius said in a statement.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s press office issued a statement saying he was “encouraged by the parties’ commitment to national reconciliation and the resolution of differences through dialogue. He urges them to begin implementation of the agreement at once.”
Tuareg separatists regained control of Kidal, their traditional fiefdom, after Islamists withdrew following a French-led military campaign that ended the 10-month occupation of the northern two-thirds of Mali by al Qaeda-linked fighters.
The Malian army had threatened to take back the town if no agreement was reached. It advanced towards Kidal in early June, capturing the village of Anefis in the first clashes in months with the MNLA Tuareg separatist rebels.
Mediators have been working around the clock to salvage the ceasefire deal.