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Tuareg Rebels Free Malian Soldiers


Ethnic Tuareg rebels in Mali have released a group of government soldiers that they were holding hostage. The rebels say the move comes as a demonstration of good faith following talks with the government last month. Brent Latham reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar, a Malian government official says the move strengthens hope for a lasting peace in northern Mali.

Tuareg rebels handed over 21 hostages to Malian authorities Sunday in what the rebels called a gesture of "good faith."

The freed hostages are Malian soldiers captured by Tuareg fighters during the course of the insurgency in the north of the country. The hostages had been held in the remote, desert area of northeastern Mali.

During peace talks last month in neighboring Algeria, the rebels and the Malian government agreed to exchange hostages and prisoners as a signal of their commitment to reaching a comprehensive deal.

The newly released soldiers join five others turned over to the government since the end of the peace talks on July 21. The talks, moderated by the Algerian ambassador to Mali, forged a renewed agreement between Tuareg leaders and Malian authorities for a ceasefire.

A spokesman for the Malian Ministry of Defense, Mouhoum Togo, hailed the release of the hostages.

Dozens of other Malian soldiers are still being held by the Tuareg, Togo says. He says their freedom is a priority for the Malian government.

Apart from the exchange of hostages, Togo says the government is working with the Tuaregs towards lasting peace and development in the northern region of Mali. He says the sides will continue a dialogue aimed at finding solutions for the northern region.

Togo says the only thing not negotiable is the territorial integrity of Mali. In the past Tuareg leaders have said they would like to form an autonomous region, but Togo says the government's position is that the Malian state is "indivisible."

After 2006 talks also brokered by Algeria, the Tuareg agreed to give up the claim for regional autonomy in exchange for government promises to speed up development in the region.

Following a recent increase in violence in the region, last month's talks were called to reaffirm the accord reached in 2006. The parties also agreed to the hostage swap, and to begin the de-mining of the northern region, as well as the repatriation of Tuareg refugees scattered throughout the region.