The Malian government signed a ceasefire deal with three rebel groups in the northern desert on Friday, the African Union’s negotiator announced, after the Tuareg and Arab insurgents captured the flashpoint town of Kidal.
The town is the cradle of Mali’s separatist movement, which wants independence for a vast swath of northern desert it calls “Azawad” and which has launched several rebellions since the 1960s.
“We have just signed an agreement which opens the way for a ceasefire,” Mauritanian President and African Union Chairman Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said on Malian public television after brokering the deal.
“The deal comes into effect with the signature of all parties,” he said, after first the rebel group in Kidal agreed and later Malian Interior Minister Sada Samake signed on behalf of the government in Bamako.
Abdel Aziz cut short a visit to Rwanda to hold the urgent ceasefire talks with the Tuareg rebel groups: the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUC) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA).
He travelled by private jet and then helicopter to Kidal, 1,500km northeast of Bamako, accompanied by Bert Koenders, the head of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita praised the work of his Mauritanian counterpart in securing the deal.
“All day he negotiated. He convinced our brothers... that there is no alternative to peace and the negotiating table,” he said.
About 20 Malian soldiers have been killed and 30 wounded since Wednesday as Tuareg and Arab insurgents captured the flashpoint town of Kidal and the smaller settlement of Menaka, according to the Malian defense ministry.
The rebels said they had seized control of several places, a claim contested by the Malian government, which had announced a unilateral ceasefire on Wednesday.
The army has been pinned back by a coalition of several armed groups, including Tuareg separatists.
Bamako and the rebel group agreed to release prisoners as soon as possible, to facilitate UN humanitarian efforts “and to respect the principles of human rights,” MINUSMA said.
They also agreed to setting up an international commission of enquiry to look into the country’s recent troubles.
Meanwhile, government officials said strategic errors were to blame for the army’s defeat in Kidal.
“There was a big failure in the chain of command... It is clear that someone in the army took an initiative that was not theirs to take,” a senior official told reporters.
The MNLA ended a nine-month occupation of the governor’s offices in November last year as one of the conditions of a peace deal in June that paved the way for presidential elections.
Yet the process deeply divided the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad.
Up until the agreement, the Tuareg group had refused to allow any government soldiers or civil servants into Kidal.
The country descended into crisis in January 2012, when the MNLA launched the latest in a string of Tuareg insurgencies in the north.
A subsequent coup in Bamako led to chaos, and militants linked to al-Qaeda overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of Mali’s northern desert.
A French-led military operation launched in January last year ousted the extremists, but sporadic attacks have continued, and the Tuareg demand for autonomy has not been resolved.