Mediators in the Mali conflict arrived in Bamako Wednesday to seek President Dioncounda Traore's approval for a deal with northern Tuareg rebels that would pave the way for nationwide polls next month.
Burkinabe Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole led a delegation to the Malian capital to ask Traore "to lift the final obstacles" to the deal, as the United Nations said the human rights situation "remains precarious" in the north.
Bassole and UN, African Union, EU and French diplomats were met at the airport by Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly, with whom they held initial talks to clear the way for the presidential election.
"The delegation will meet with President Traore to remove all remaining obstacles," one of the delegates told AFP.
Rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and a smaller group, who want autonomy for the northern Tuareg homeland they call Azawad, said Tuesday they were prepared to sign a document put forward by regional mediator Burkina Faso.
The militants, who control the northeastern regional capital of Kidal, were initially reluctant to let government troops step in to secure the town for a planned July 28 ballot but agreed to the deal after amendments were made.
"We won't obstruct the process," an official in the Tuareg delegation told AFP. "When the time comes, we'll sign, no problem."
The deal "could be signed in Ouagadougou" with Mali's government negotiator Tiebile Drame if all obstacles are cleared, the delegate said, while a source close to the government, which also wants to fine-tune the deal, said it could be concluded on Wednesday evening or Thursday.
Next month's planned polls are 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 planned election date.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday on France 2 television: "I saw the text yesterday, it is a good text, and I hope if possible it will be signed today."
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.
A source close to the negotiations said the Malian government was uneasy about stipulations concerning rebel disarmament and the conditions for the arrival of the Malian army.
Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, the leader of the Tuareg contingent in the talks, said the rebels were willing to sign the agreement to "move towards peace" and said Tuareg fighters would be "confined to cantonments with their weapons".
But he said they would only disarm if there were a post-election agreement with the Malian authorities on giving "special status" to the northern region.
In Geneva, the UN said Wednesday that Mali's military has since March carried out fewer reprisals against ethnic groups suspected of sympathising with rebels.
"Nevertheless, the risks of reprisals against these communities remained significant given their perceived association with the armed groups, and this may present a major obstacle to the return and reintegration of those who have fled," Flavia Pansieri, the agency's assistant high commissioner for human rights told the UN Human Rights Council.
"The human rights situation remains precarious" in the north, she cautioned.
The agency sent a mission to Mali in March to probe suspected abuses including enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention and arrest and summary executions.
In its report, it said armed groups, including the Tuareg rebel MNLA and the Islamist Ansar Dine group, were responsible for many of the abuses, but also pointed a finger at elements of the Malian military.
Analysts have questioned the readiness of the authorities to stage polls by July 28 in the still deeply-divided nation, with 500,000 people remain displaced in the more stable south or in neighbouring countries.
But the insistence of France on a July poll and promises of international aid of 3.2 billion euros ($4.1 billion), appear to have won hearts and minds, with virtually all of Mali's warring political factions accepting the deadline.