BAMAKO, May 24- The Mali government signed a ceasefire deal with three rebel groups in the northern desert Friday, the African Union’s negotiator announced, after the Tuareg and Arab insurgents captured the flashpoint town of Kidal.
The town is the cradle of Mali’s separatist movement, which wants independence for a vast swathe of northern desert it calls “Azawad” and which has launched several rebellions since the 1960s.
“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 after brokering the deal.
“The deal comes into effect with the signature of all parties,” he said, after first the rebel group in Kidal agreed and later Interior Minister Sada Samake signed on behalf of the government in Bamako.
Abdel Aziz cut short a visit to Rwanda to hold the urgent ceasefire talks with the Tuareg rebels groups: the 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 kilometres (900 miles) northeast of Bamako, accompanied by Bert Koenders, the head of the local UN mission MINUSMA.
– ‘No alternative to peace’ –
Malian 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 defence ministry.
The rebels said they had seized control of several places, a claim contested by the government, which 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 UN 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.
The MNLA ended a nine-month occupation of the governor’s offices in November last year as one of the conditions of a June peace deal that paved the way for presidential elections.
But the process deeply divided the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad.
Up until the agreement, the Tuareg group had refused to allow any government soldiers or civil servants into Kidal.
The country descended into crisis in January 2012, when the MNLA launched the latest in a string of Tuareg insurgencies in the north.
A subsequent coup in Bamako led to chaos, and militants linked to Al Qaeda overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of Mali’s northern desert.
A French led military operation launched in January 2013 ousted the extremists, but sporadic attacks have continued, and the Tuareg demand for autonomy has not been resolved.