Mali's Tuareg rebels take step towards peace deal

A soldier is seen sitting on the back of a truck in the rebel-controlled northern Malian town of Kidal, in May 2014 (AFP Photo/Fabien Offner) (AFP/File)

Algiers (AFP) - Mali's main Tuareg-led rebel alliance initialled a peace agreement with the government Thursday but demanded changes before signing a deal to end decades of conflict in the west African nation.

The international community is trying to persuade at least some Mali rebels to sign an accord in Bamako on Friday following months of UN-backed negotiations and numerous ceasefire violations.

But the Tuareg-led Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) wants more concessions before inking a firm deal.

"Initialling is a sign of good faith to move towards a final, comprehensive and lasting solution but further adjustments are needed before signing," rebel representative Almou Ag Mohamed said in Algiers.

The government and a coalition of armed groups from the north known as the Platform have already initialled the peace accord, negotiated under the auspices of the UN and Algerian-led mediation over eight months.

But the CMA has said it will not accept a deal without an amendment recognising "Azawad", the name used by the Tuareg for the northern part of Mali, as a "geographic, political and juridical entity".

The CMA said it would not participate in a signing ceremony in the capital Bamako on Friday which is to be attended by a dozen heads of state.

"Mission accomplished but not over," Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said after the deal was initialled.

He said he was "aware that the situation on the ground does not lead to optimism but it requires international mediation to appeal to everyone's sense of responsibility".

Lamamra said he had received a message from Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita who he said was "reaching out (to the rebels) and is ready discuss with them at any time the future of the country, the future of the northern regions and the rigorous implementation of the agreement "

- Further talks expected -

Another CMA member, Sidi Brahim Oud Sidat, said there would be further negotiations on the alliance's political and security demands.

"Once these requests are met, we will sign the agreement."

A source close to the international mediators said earlier this week that two of the CMA's five groups were expected to sign the deal on Friday, with experts pointing to fissures within the alliance.

Mali was shaken by a coup in 2012 which cleared the way for Tuareg separatists to seize the towns and cities of the vast northern desert.

Militants linked to Al-Qaeda then overpowered the Tuareg to take control of northern Mali for nearly 10 months, imposing a brutal interpretation of Islamic law with punitive amputations and executions.

A French-led military offensive ousted the militants but the Tuareg rebels and Islamist militants remain active throughout the northeast of the country.

French President Francois Hollande called on "all parties" to sign the Algiers agreement, according to a statement from his office.

Mali is still deeply divided with the Tuareg and Arab populations of the north accusing sub-Saharan ethnic groups in the more prosperous south of marginalising them.

Northern Mali has seen an upsurge in attacks by pro-government militias and various factions of the Tuareg-led rebellion, leaving many dead on both sides.

The peace agreement calls for the creation of elected regional assemblies but not autonomy or federalism, in deference to the concerns of the government about separatism.