Northern Mali state governor returns as part of ceasefire


French Defence Minister Florence Parly (L) is welcomed by Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (R) upon her arrival in Bamako, on August 1, 2017, as part of a Sahel tour to discuss the fight against jihadist insurgents.

BAMAKO  Rival armed groups in northern Mali have agreed to the return of a state governor to the desert city of Kidal as part of a preliminary ceasefire deal agreed after weeks of fighting.

The return of Governor Sidi Mohamed Ag Ichrach on Wednesday comes after a preliminary truce among fighters drawn mostly from competing Tuareg clans involved in remote desert battles since July that have killed dozens.

The clashes have undermined a Western-backed peace process in the country and complicated efforts to counter al Qaeda-linked militants.

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Radhia Achouri, spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Mali, said a truce has been agreed between CMA, an alliance of separatist groups seeking autonomy for a region of northern Mali, and Platform, their pro-government opponents. But it had not yet been signed, she said.

The U.N. and Mali's government helped broker the deal.

"We hope that his (Ag Ichrach's) presence in Kidal will contribute to advancing the implementation of the peace agreement and addressing populations' needs," Achouri said.

The latest upsurge in fighting around the strategic city of Kidal, which lies on a nexus of desert trade routes, marks the resumption of decades-old score-settling between the semi-nomadic clans that has continued despite a 2015 peace agreement.

Mediators at the time said that the deal would allow Malian and French troops to counter an Islamist insurgency led by jihadists who briefly seized north Mali in 2012. Instead, their attacks on Western and Malian targets have increased.

Interim state authorities have already returned to other north Malian towns as part of the implementation of the deal, but progress had stalled over Kidal which is prized by both the sides and has changed hands several times.

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There has been no permanent state presence in Kidal since 2014, when the governor left in haste after a visiting government delegation came under fire from angry CMA fighters.

International Committee of the Red Cross field coordinator Assem Elessawy told Reuters that thousands of people had been displaced by fighting that resumed in July and has led to CMA seizing back significant territory from its rivals.

Forty people injured in the battles have been treated in hospitals in Gao and Kidal, he added.

Senior CMA official Attaye Ag Mohamed told Reuters the group still held dozens of Platform prisoners but had released nine child soldiers.

A spokesman for Platform could not be reached.