Gunmen abducted five polling staff and a local official Saturday in the northern Malian town of Tessalit, a week before a presidential election meant to restore the country’s unity, a local official said.
The poll workers and an elected Tessalit official, all of them Malian, were snatched by unidentified “gunmen,” an official in the Kidal governor’s office told reporters.
The official said the six hostages had been at the town hall in Tessalit, a remote town about 200km north of the flashpoint northern city of Kidal, to plan the distribution of ID cards to registered voters when they were kidnapped.
A Malian security ministry official said the kidnapping appeared to be the work of the minority-Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
The MNLA took control of Kidal in February after a French-led military intervention ousted Islamist fighters who had seized control of most of northern Mali.
The Malian authorities finally reclaimed the city after signing a deal with the MNLA and another Tuareg group on June 18 aimed at reuniting the country and clearing the way for elections.
Under the deal, MNLA forces moved into barracks as regular Malian troops were deployed to secure Kidal ahead of next Monday’s vote.
The kidnappings come after violence between Tuaregs and Mali’s majority black population rocked Kidal on Thursday and Friday.
Officials said armed men went on a rampage on Thursday, looting and ransacking shops and businesses, killing four people and wounding many others. On Friday, unidentified arsonists set fire to the city’s central market.
Many Malians accuse the light-skinned Tuaregs of being responsible for the chaotic sequence that saw the country split in two for nine months, shattering what had been considered a democratic success story in the restive region.
When the MNLA launched their offensive in January last year they humiliated the Malian army by seizing a string of northern towns.
Mid-level army officers angry over the losses then overthrew then-Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure in March last year, blaming him for the army’s weak response.
The coup unleashed a crisis that saw the Tuareg separatists seize Mali’s vast desert north along with a trio of Islamist groups that then proceeded to chase out their former allies the MNLA and impose brutal Sharia rule on their territory, until the French-led intervention forced them out.
Mali has since been battling to restore a measure of stability.
The decision to hold the first round of the presidential election on Monday next week, followed by a second round on Aug. 11 if necessary, was taken by the Malian government under pressure from the international community.
However, the presence of the Malian army has stoked tensions in the powder-keg town of Kidal, with pro and anti-government protests a regular occurrence and several troops injured by demonstrators.
Many observers and some Malian officials have said the election is being held too soon and that the interim administration needs more time to organize a credible poll.