International mediators failed Wednesday to convince Mali's president to sign a deal with northern Tuareg rebels that would pave the way for nationwide polls next month, with the talks now expected to take several more days.
"We hope to secure a deal within days," Pierre Buyoya, head of the pan-African force fighting Islamist militants in Mali (Misma), said Wednesday.
Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole earlier led the delegation to the Malian capital to ask President Dioncounda Traore "to lift the final obstacles" to the deal, as the United Nations said the human rights situation "remains precarious" in the north.
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."
Bassole and UN, African Union, EU and French diplomats held six hours of talks with transitional leader Traore, but failed to overcome the remaining obstacles to a deal being signed.
Next month's planned polls are seen as a key step in Mali's recovery
Misma chief Buyoya said the negotiations would shift to neighbouring Burkina Faso on Thursday, adding that there was never an expectation that the deal would be reached in a day.
"All parties have decided to make an effort to achieve peace," the former Burundian president said, seeking to end 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 insists it is 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.
The question of arrest warrants issued against MNLA chiefs also remains a sticking point.
"We cannot stay silent on all the crimes committed by the armed groups," a Malian official said.
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.
Meanwhile the United Nations added Mali to its child soldier list of shame.
The Tuareg rebels, Al Qaeda Islamists and pro-government militias all used hundreds of child soldiers in Mali, said special UN representative Leila Zerrougui.
Children make up more than half of Mali's population of 15.8 million and many have been abducted for armed groups and girls forced to become the wives of combatants, Zerrougui told a press conference in New York.
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, while adding that "the human rights situation remains precarious" in the north.
Analysts have questioned the readiness of the authorities to stage polls by July 28 in the still deeply-divided nation, with 500,000 people 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.