Hundreds of protesters rallied for a second day Wednesday in the northern Malian town of Kidal against a preliminary, U.N.-brokered peace proposal, as Tuareg separatist leaders gathered to discuss the agreement with their supporters, residents said.
People in the crowd said the proposal, so far signed only by Mali's government, answered none of their demands, most importantly autonomy for the northern region they call Azawad.
But the government and U.N. mediators say the deal — which proposes more devolved powers for the north, a regional security force and a development plan — is the best hope yet to end decades of Tuareg-led uprisings.
Western powers, including former colonial ruler France, fear Islamist groups in the area could take advantage of continued chaos and use the region as a launch pad for foreign attacks.
Rebel representatives have asked for more time to consult with their members in the sparsely populated desert region before signing anything.
A meeting bringing together representatives from separatist groups including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Arab Movement for Azawad (MAA) was to have begun Tuesday but was postponed until Thursday.
Participants continued to arrive in pickup trucks and on motorcycles and camels Wednesday. Locals said preliminary consultations between tribal leaders and various factions were already taking place.
"We refuse the signature of this agreement which contains none of our demands,'' said Haza Ag Intohama, a protester who had traveled to Kidal from an area on Mali's border with Algeria.
A 2012 armed Tuareg uprising triggered a military coup in the capital, Bamako, in the south. Tuareg groups then allied themselves with al-Qaida-linked Islamist rebels to seize control of the northern two-thirds of the country.
The Tuaregs split with their former allies ahead of a French-led military campaign in early 2013 that drove the Islamists out of major towns in the north.
Remnants of the Islamist groups remain, however, and launch regular attacks on Malian troops, U.N. peacekeepers and French soldiers.
"Just yesterday, one of our armored vehicles hit a mine in northern Mali, seriously injuring two of our soldiers,'' French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Wednesday.
Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop this week urged the rebels to quickly sign the peace deal to set themselves apart from Islamic groups responsible for a recent wave of attacks.