Bamako, Tuaregs sign accord paving way for Mali vote

The Malian government and Tuareg rebels occupying a key northern city signed an accord Tuesday paving the way for presidential elections in the troubled west African state next month.

The agreement, reached after 10 days of often tense negotiations, will enable nationwide polls to take place on July 28 and put Mali back on the path to recovery.

It allows the Malian army to enter the key northern town of Kidal -- currently occupied by Tuareg rebels -- to secure the ballot.

Former colonial power France called it a "major breakthrough" in getting Mali out of the crisis, while the European Union's policy chief Catherine Ashton said the agreement had "historical significance".

Mali's territorial administration minister and representatives of two Tuareg movements signed the deal in Ouagadougou, capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, as the lead mediator in negotiations, Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore, looked on.

"This agreement represents a major breakthrough in exiting the crisis in Mali," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

"I call on the Malian parties, now reunited around a common project, to fully implement this agreement in the best interest of the country," he said.

Hailing the accord, Ashton said it "constitutes a crucial step in the process of building peace through dialogue".

The UN envoy to Mali, Bert Koenders, echoed Ashton's message, but said the deal was only "a first step".

"In practice, the parties have yet to discuss the latest technical details regarding security issues, the return of the administration, essential services to the population in the region of Kidal and preparation for the next presidential election," he said.

"Once these conditions are met, it is at this point that an inclusive dialogue can be established, involving not only the government and armed groups, but also all Malians," added Koenders, who is also head of the UN's Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

The lack of a deal has been a major obstacle in the planning of the election, seen as crucial to Mali's recovery from a conflict that saw Al-Qaeda-linked groups seize the northern half of the country for nine months in the wake of a March 2012 coup that toppled the government in Bamako.

The crisis leading to the coup was sparked by a rebellion by Tuareg separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who want autonomy for their northern homeland.

Flush with weapons following the return of Tuareg mercenaries who fought alongside slain Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi, the group rapidly overpowered the weak Malian army.

This led angry soldiers to overthrow the government in Bamako.

The Tuareg continued their campaign, seizing key northern cities, but they were sidelined by their powerful Al Qaeda-linked allies who chased them out and seized control of the north where they imposed an extreme form of Islamic law.

French troops, since intervening in January, have reclaimed most lost territory but analysts have warned that Malian soldiers and MINUSMA would struggle to contain Islamist fighters without support from Paris.

The United Nations last week warned that the human rights situation in northern Mali remains precarious, with both rebels and Malian troops having been accused of committing numerous abuses.

MINUSMA, to be made up of 12,600 international troops and police, is due to start deploying on July 1.

The MNLA sided with France during the worst of the fighting this year but it has been reluctant to allow government troops into its Kidal bastion for the election.

Arrest warrants issued by Malian authorities against MNLA chiefs were a sticking point in the negotiations, but one source said a verbal agreement was struck to lift them.

Drame would not confirm that information, but said an international commission of inquiry is expected to be set up to deal with crimes against humanity committed during the conflict.