Hundreds protest in northern Mali against draft peace deal

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Hundreds of people rallied in the northern Malian town of Kidal on Tuesday to protest against a preliminary, U.N.-brokered peace deal signed by the government and not yet accepted by Tuareg rebel groups in the north, residents said. The protests, which organizers said drew several thousand demonstrators, came ahead of a meeting in Kidal on Wednesday of representatives of rebel groups involved in the recent peace talks in Algiers to discuss the terms of the proposed deal. The West African country's government signed the agreement on March 1 in hopes of tackling decades of Tuareg-led uprisings in northern Mali. In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop urged separatist rebels to quickly follow suit to differentiate themselves from a wave of Islamist violence in Mali. The rebels, however, had demanded more time to consult with their supporters in the sparsely populated desert north of Mali, a region they call Azawad. On the streets of Kidal, a dusty desert town and stronghold of Tuareg separatists, demonstrators chanted slogans against the deal and carried banners calling on their leaders not to sign. "The people of Azawad will not sign their own death warrant," read one banner, while other protesters waved the red, green, black and yellow flag of their notional state. "There are more than 1,000 demonstrators shouting slogans against the accord and calling for autonomy," a resident said, adding that they had gathered near an airstrip outside town. Representatives of the separatist groups - including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Arab Movement for Azawad (MAA) - had been due to meet in Kidal on Tuesday but postponed their talks by a day due to logistical difficulties, a source involved in the discussions said. A 2012 uprising by armed Tuareg separatists prompted a military coup in the capital Bamako in the south, plunging Mali into chaos that allowed al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels to seize control of the northern two-thirds of the country. A French-led military campaign in early 2013 shattered the Islamists' grip on northern Mali but isolated cells survived and continue to carry out attacks on U.N. peacekeepers. Gunmen from a group founded by veteran Algerian Islamist Mokhtar Belmokhtar opened fire in a popular restaurant in Bamako on Saturday, killing five people including two foreigners. It was the first such attack in the capital in years. (Reporting by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Mark Heinrich)