Mali hostages released but pre-vote tensions linger

Six officials abducted in northern Mali have been released, officials said Sunday, but tensions remained high as a homemade bomb was found in flashpoint city Kidal a week from a crucial presidential vote.

A Tuareg rebel leader has been arrested for ordering the seizure of the six hostages -- five election officials and a local elected representative -- in the northern town of Tessalit, an official in the Kidal region said a day after the brazen kidnapping.

"All those kidnapped on Saturday have been released and are doing well," the official told AFP.

He blamed the abduction on the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a rebel group founded to fight for independence for Mali's minority Tuareg people.

"It was Baye Ag Diknane, an official of the MNLA, who ordered the abduction," he said, adding that the Tuareg rebel had been arrested and was under questioning.

An African military source in Kidal confirmed the hostages' release.

The six officials had been at the town hall in Tessalit, a remote outpost some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from key northern city Kidal, to plan the distribution of identity cards to voters for the July 28 election when they were abducted.

The hostages were blindfolded and driven "in a vehicle with the MNLA flag" for a distance of 150 kilometres, the military official said one of the victims had told investigators.

No one has claimed the kidnapping -- including the MNLA, which was immediately blamed by officials in Kidal and in the Malian security ministry.

The MNLA took control of Kidal in February after a French-led military intervention to oust Al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had seized control of most of northern Mali.

The Malian authorities finally reclaimed the city after signing a deal with the MNLA and another Tuareg group on June 18 aimed at reuniting the country and clearing the way for elections to restore democratic rule.

The kidnappings come after violence between the light-skinned Tuaregs and Mali's majority black population rocked Kidal on Thursday and Friday.

Officials said armed men went on a rampage Thursday, looting and ransacking shops and businesses, killing four people and wounding many others.

On Friday, unidentified arsonists set fire to the city's central market.

Kidal residents say Malian troops and UN peacekeepers have been on patrol and that calm has largely been restored.

But panic erupted Sunday morning when a homemade bomb was found in the middle of the city, witnesses said.

Residents were evacuated from the area and the device was disarmed, a local official told AFP.

Observers have increasingly cast doubt on whether Kidal will be able to take part as planned in the July 28 election, seen as the key to restoring democratic rule after an 18-month crisis that saw Mali suffer the back-to-back blows of a Tuareg rebellion, a military coup and the seizure of half its territory by Islamist extremists.

One of the 28 presidential candidates, Tiebile Drame, dropped out of the race on Wednesday saying the country was not ready for elections, especially Kidal.

But the main candidates have continued campaigning, including favourites Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a former prime minister, and Soumaila Cisse, an ex-cabinet member and former top West African official.

Cisse however told a campaign rally Saturday in the capital Bamako that he was "deeply concerned over the risk of widespread fraud" and had alerted the UN.

The leader of France's military operation in Mali, General Gregoire de Saint-Quentin, said Mali was not "completely stabilised" despite the French-led intervention's military success against the Islamist extremists.

"Two-thirds of the country spent a year under the control of terrorists who tore down all administrative and security structures," the general told French weekly Journal du Dimanche.

"The Malian army was defeated and its equipment destroyed. It takes time to rebuild all that in such a big country."