Mali PM makes rare government visit to Tuareg-held northern city

KIDAL, Mali (Reuters) - Mali’s prime minister travelled to Kidal in the West African nation’s restive north on Friday as part of the first senior government delegation in three years to visit the city, which has been under the control of Tuareg rebels since 2012.

Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga and eight of his ministers are making a nine-stop national tour aimed at shoring up support for the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita ahead of national elections planned for July 29.

Worsening security has raised doubts about whether the vote can go ahead, especially in Kidal, where much of the population wants to secede and create an independent Tuareg state.

Maiga met with local political and administrative authorities as well as traditional chiefs.

“From today we are starting to consolidate relationships of trust that will allow us to advance in the construction of peace, unity and security, because without these three elements everything we say is impossible,” he said during his visit in comments broadcast on television.

Mali has been in turmoil since Tuareg-led rebels and Islamist militants seized control of the country’s desert north in 2012.

French forces intervened the following year to drive back the Islamists, but Tuareg groups have maintained their grip on Kidal and some other parts of the north.

“(Maiga) came. He is not a stranger. He is here and we ask him to stay a bit with us to raise awareness, to reconcile us, to bring us together,” Mohamed Ag Intallah, a leading Tuareg chief, said in televised comments.

Government overtures like this will be vital for building trust and helping secure Mali’s north, which has seen a surge of attacks by Islamist and periodic infighting between rival Tuareg militias.

But previous attempts to pacify Kidal have not gone well.

In 2014, former prime minister Moussa Mara’s delegation was greeted with gun and rocket fire. A battle between the Malian army and Tuaregs at the time killed at least 50 soldiers and forced Kidal state governor Sidi Mohamed Ag Ichrach to flee.

After that, Mali’s central government based in the south more or less gave up on trying to re-establish sovereignty over Kidal, but a ceasefire deal between pro- and anti-government Tuareg factions last year, and subsequent talks, made this latest visit possible with the consent of the main factions.

Ichrach was able to return to Kidal last year following that deal. But the Islamists remain opposed to any talks, and on Thursday a U.N. peacekeepers’ camp near Kidal in Mali came under mortar fire from suspected Islamists.

Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Tim Cocks and Joe Bavier; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Peter Graff