OUAGADOUGOU A Malian government delegation and Tuareg separatist rebels have reached an agreement "in principle" that would allow planned elections in July to go ahead in the disputed northern Kidal region, a senior mediator in the talks said late on Monday.
Negotiations in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, opened on Saturday, after Mali's army last week began advancing towards Kidal, the MNLA rebels' last stronghold in the remote northeast, in the first direct fighting in months.
France launched a massive military campaign in January which broke al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters' control over the northern two-thirds of Mali. However it allowed the Tuaregs to regain control of their traditional fiefdom.
The Malian government has made clear that it wants civil administration and the army to return to Kidal before elections scheduled for July 28 and had threatened to seize the town if no agreement was reached by Monday.
"On the point concerning the deployment of Malian armed forces in the region of Kidal, we have obtained an agreement in principle," Djibril Bassole, Burkina's foreign minister, told journalists following a round of meetings.
"The two sides have requested a few hours to report back to their bases ... in order to be able to come back tomorrow for the final adoption of this document," he said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States hoped the talks "will set the stage for long-term national reconciliation."
"We call on the parties to conclude a framework agreement for elections in Kidal without delay," Psaki told reporters.
Mali's Tuareg community has for decades demanded greater political autonomy from the southern capital of Bamako and more spending on development for the impoverished region, which they call Azawad.
The MNLA launched its uprising early last year and soon allied itself with Islamist fighters who took advantage of a coup in the capital in March 2012 to seize the desert north. They were later sidelined by the better armed Islamist groups.
France, which is handing over to a U.N. peacekeeping mission due in Mali next month, has pushed hard for elections to go ahead in order to seal a democratic transition.
However, the MNLA has so far refused to disarm and rejected the return of Malian soldiers to Kidal.
Bassole said the agreement would establish a mixed commission composed of both sides to monitor security and prepare for the army's deployment in Kidal.
Long-term solutions to Tuareg independence demands are expected to wait until after the elections, since the interim government lacks the political authority to make a far-reaching deal with northern armed groups.
"All the arrangements are foreseen in the accord to avoid any incident, any disagreement that could break the trust and make us lose our objective, which is to organize the elections," Bassole said.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington.; Writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Christopher Wilson)