Mali's Tuareg-led rebels have signed a peace agreement with the Bamako government, more than a month after other armed groups took similar action to end years of unrest in the impoverished desert nation.
The U.N.-brokered accord calls for the election of regional assemblies in Mali, but stops short of granting autonomy to northern Mali, most of which lies in the Sahara desert. Separatist demands were a main cause of an uprising that followed a military coup that ousted Mali's president in the sub-Saharan south.
Widespread instability that followed the coup in Bamako led to major territorial gains by the Tuaregs and other northern rebels, but they, in turn, were overcome by an insurgency in the north by Islamists linked to the al-Qaida terror network. Military intervention by France broke the rebels' and jihadists' control over much of the country.
Tuaregs in Mali's northern desert areas have rebelled against control by authorities in Bamako for decades. They refused to join the peace agreement that was signed last month by the central government and loyalist militias, but relented recently after amendments were added promising that rebel fighters could join security forces in northern Mali, and that northerners would be better represented in government institutions.
Saturday's peace agreement was signed in the capital by representatives of the Coordination of Azawad Movements, a coalition of rebel groups known by its French acronym, CMA.
Some observers cautious
The peace accord was hailed as a landmark achievement by those involved in the negotiations. However, some political observers were more cautious, noting that other peace plans in recent years have failed to end violence between the nation's bitterly divided ethnic and regional factions.
A former head of the U.N. peacekeeping force that has tried to keep order in Mali, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, have welcomed CMA's professed commitment to peace. Writing jointly in a commentary published Friday by the French daily Le Monde, they urged the people of Mali to ensure that terms of the peace accord are implemented.
The U.N. peace force in Mali, known as MINUSMA, has come under frequent attack by northern rebels, and its troops, most of whom are from African nations, have suffered greater losses than any of the 15 other U.N. missions in operation worldwide — 36 troops killed since 2013, according to the AFP news service.
The peacekeepers' commander, Major General Michael Lollesgaard, was quoted this week as saying that his force's training, logistical resources and intelligence capabilities were insufficient to enable effective operations.