Mediators fly to Mali to salvage northern ceasefire deal

OUAGADOUGOU Wed Jun 12, 2013 10:59am EDT

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OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Mediators working to hammer out a ceasefire agreement between Mali's government and Tuareg rebels before July elections flew to Bamako on Wednesday to attempt to convince the country's interim president to sign the deal.

Negotiations opened on Saturday in neighboring Burkina Faso after Mali's army last week began advancing towards Kidal, the MNLA rebels' last stronghold in the northeast, sparking the first fighting in months.

Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole, a mediator in the talks, said on Monday the two sides had reached an agreement in principle but had asked for more time so that they could fly to Mali to check it with their respective leaderships.

The government delegation did not return for the expected signing on Tuesday, raising concerns the deal was unraveling.

"We are going there for direct discussions with President Dioncounda Traore. It's to remove the final blockages," one of the mediators told Reuters at the airport in Ouagadougou before the team left for Mali.

A French-led military campaign launched in January ended the 10-month occupation of the northern two-thirds of Mali by al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters. However, Tuaregs have regained control of Kidal, their traditional fiefdom.

The Malian government has made clear that it wants civil administration and the army to return to the north before elections scheduled for July 28, and had threatened to seize the town if no agreement was reached by Monday.

There is widespread opposition in Bamako to any deal that would make concessions to the MNLA, whose leaders face arrest warrants in Mali for alleged crimes committed during their occupation of the north.

"If politicians sign these deals, they will have to answer before history one day," Mali's Public Prosecutor Daniel Tessougé said on Wednesday. "Mali must not humiliate itself again for the billions of euros promised by our international partners."

International donors pledged 3.25 billion euros ($4.31 billion) last month to help Mali rebuild from the conflict but the disbursement of the bulk of the money depends on the organization of elections.

France has pushed hard for elections to go ahead in order to seal a democratic transition after a military coup in March 2012. It plans to hand over responsibility for internal security in Mali to a U.N. peacekeeping mission due to deploy next month.

Bassole said the draft agreement would allow the army to deploy to Kidal and called for the creation of a mixed commission composed of both sides to monitor security.

The rebels would be confined to their quarters but would remain armed pending a final agreement on their demands for increased autonomy. They are expected to negotiate that after the elections.

The head of the delegation representing the MNLA said late on Tuesday that the rebels had accepted the deal.

"We've analyzed the document ... and everyone agrees today that we will not be able to get better than what we have in the document. I can confirm that we are ready to sign," Mahamadou Djeri Maiga said.

The Tuareg rebels has allied themselves with armed Islamist groups that took advantage of the March coup to seize the north. The MNLA were later sidelined by the better-armed Islamists.

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(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Louise Ireland)

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