Col. Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, center, a Malian government minister, signs… (Ahmed Ouoba / AFP / Getty…)
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Mali's government reached a peace deal Tuesday with Tuareg fighters who rebelled last year and seized most of the country's north.
But the deal does not resolve the West African nation's conflict with separate Islamic militias linked with Al Qaeda that are still plaguing the region.
After taking control of the north, the Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, were swiftly outflanked by the militias, which grabbed control of key northern towns last year, imposing a severe form of Islamic law, or sharia.
The Tuaregs, who been struggling for decades for an independent state they call Azawad, subsequently distanced themselves from the Islamists.
Under Tuesday's accord, the MNLA and a smaller Tuareg group, the High Council of the Azawad, agreed to allow security forces back into Kidal, the northeastern town that the rebels control, according to news agencies. The rebels also gave up their fight for independence and accepted Mali's territorial integrity, according to the reports. The agreement calls for a cease-fire.
Mali's government had threatened to seize Kidal by force in the absence of a deal. The MNLA is not popular in the capital, Bamako, where many Malians blame Tuaregs for the loss of half the country to the Al Qaeda-linked groups: Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.
In January, Mali's government sought French help to drive the Islamists from the north. In a lightning operation, French forces forced the Islamists out of the major towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
After the Islamist fighters abandoned Kidal, MNLA rebels took control of the town, sparking indignation in Bamako.
Tuesday's deal, which was signed Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkino Faso, eases the danger of new clashes between the Tuaregs and the Malian military and sets the stage for national elections due next month.
A government representative at the talks, Tiebile Drame, told the Associated Press that the Tuaregs accepted the government's control over the entire country.
"I think we can say that the biggest task is finished," Drame said. "We have agreed on the essentials. There is an international consensus as well as a Malian consensus on the fundamental questions, which include the integrity of our territory, national unity, and the secular and republican nature of our state."
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