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July 28, 2017

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Mali government, rebels sign ceasefire deal: AU

BAMAKO--The Mali government and the three main rebel groups in the northern desert have signed a ceasefire deal to end days of violence in the Tuareg heartland, the African Union's negotiator announced.

"We have just signed an agreement which opens the way for a ceasefire," Mauritanian President and African Union chairman Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said on Mali public television early Saturday after brokering the deal.

"The deal comes into effect with the signature of all parties," he said, after first the rebel group in their northeast fiefdom Kidal agreed, and later at 21:30 GMT when Interior Minister Sada Samake signed on behalf of the government in Bamako.

Kidal is the cradle of Mali's Tuareg separatist movement, which wants independence for a vast swathe of northern desert it calls "Azawad" and which has launched several rebellions since the 1960s.

Abdel Aziz cut short a visit to Rwanda to hold the urgent ceasefire talks with the Tuareg rebels groups: National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUC) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA).

He travelled by private jet and then helicopter to Kidal, 1,500 kilometers northeast of Bamako, accompanied by Bert Koenders, the head of the local U.N. mission MINUSMA.

Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita praised the work of his Mauritanian counterpart in securing the deal.

"All day he negotiated. He convinced our brothers ... that there is no alternative to peace and the negotiating table," he said.

Around 20 Malian soldiers have been killed and 30 wounded since Wednesday as Tuareg and Arab insurgents captured the flashpoint town of Kidal and the smaller settlement of Menaka, according to the defense ministry.

The rebels said they had seized control of several places, a claim contested by the government that had announced a unilateral ceasefire on Wednesday.

The army has been pinned back by a coalition of several armed groups, including Tuareg separatists.

Bamako and the rebel group agreed to release prisoners as soon as possible, to facilitate U.N. humanitarian efforts "and to respect the principles of human rights," MINUSMA said.

They also agreed to setting up an international commission of enquiry to look into the country's recent troubles.

Meanwhile government officials said strategic errors were to blame for the army's defeat in Kidal.

"There was a big failure in the chain of command... It is clear that someone in the army took an initiative that was not theirs to take," a senior official told AFP.

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