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Mali lifts state of emergency in place since January

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Mali lifted a nearly six-month state of emergency on Saturday, the eve of the start of a presidential campaign for a July 28 election in the troubled west African nation, the security ministry said.

The removal of the state of emergency marks a gradual return to normality in Mali, a once stable democracy emerging from some 18 months of political crisis and conflict.

The decree enforcing a curfew and forbidding public gatherings was put in place on January 12, a day after France launched a surprise military intervention to help Mali's weak army drive out Islamists who had taken over its north for nine months.

The move by Mali's former colonial ruler came as Al Qaeda-linked Islamists holding key towns in the vast arid north pushed farther south towards the capital Bamako.

The Islamist groups had piggybacked on a separatist rebellion by ethnic Tuareg -- which started in January 2012 -- to take control of the north, where they imposed a harsh form of sharia law and eventually kicked out their former separatist allies.

Bamako meanwhile was crippled by political crisis after a March 2012 coup by soldiers furious at their rout at the hands of the rebel groups, a defeat they blamed on ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure.

With the Islamists driven into the desert by the French-led intervention, Mali is pinning its hopes for stability on the July 28 polls -- a date set under pressure from the international community.

However, with some 500,000 people still displaced after the conflict, many observers have raised concerns over the difficulty of holding an election so soon.

Malian troops on Friday entered the last rebel stronghold, the key northern city of Kidal, which had been held by the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) since the Islamists were driven out.

The lack of government control in the city was seen as a major obstacle to organising the election.

On Saturday scores of people hostile to the Malian army protested in front of their military camp in Kidal, where an African security source said "peace is fragile".

The minority Tuareg of northern Mali -- who have long complained of being marginalised by Bamako -- have waged several rebellions in past decades, seeking autonomy for what they see as their homeland.

Tiebile Drame, architect of a peace deal enabling Malian troops to enter Kidal and secure the polls, told AFP on Thursday it was "very clear" that the elections would be "botched".

"The government is not ready, the minister of territorial administration is not ready, contrary to what he said, and the (election commission) is not ready," Drame said.

The election will end a transition government put in place in April 2012 following the coup.

Mali's constitutional court released a list on Friday of the 26 candidates, featuring four former prime ministers and an array of political heavyweights including the chief negotiator in the ceasefire accord with the Tuaregs -- but just one woman.

The European Union has begun deploying election observers in Mali ahead of the polls.

Some 3,200 French soldiers are still in Mali, but are slowly winding down their mission to around 1,000 men to support a UN peacekeeping mission put in place on July 1, currently made up of 6,300 African troops.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130706/mali-lifts-state-emergency-place-january-1