Mali's acting prime minister promised during a visit to the war-torn north on Thursday elections would go ahead in July despite fears his government is failing to reassert its control there after the ousting of Islamist rebels.
Diango Cissoko's visit to Gao was the first by a senior government figure since a French-led campaign freed northern Mali's largest town from al-Qaida-linked rebels in January.
Cissoko met with local dignitaries and Malian troops during the visit, and thanked French forces who helped take Gao and other northern towns from the militants. He also urged the French to stay in Mali. France is planning to reduce its presence in the country from the current 4,000 troops to 1,000 by the end of this year.
France is pushing for presidential and legislative elections in three months. Mali has been mired in turmoil for a year, rocked by a Tuareg rebellion, an occupation of the north of the country by Islamic militants and a military coup.
"There is no question over the holding of elections in July. All the necessary steps are being and will be taken,'' Cissoko, part of a transitional government, told reporters in Gao.
However, analysts fear that preparations will not be completed by July and warn that a botched election could sow the seeds for further unrest and north-south conflict in the landlocked former French colony
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch says two ethnic Tuareg men who were tortured by Malian soldiers have died in prison.
The rights group, citing sources who knew the men, says the two men died in a Bamako prison the night of April 6 as a result of excessive heat. It says they and five other men had been kept in an unventilated room during the hottest period of the year in Bamako, when temperatures can rise above 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).
The men had been arrested in February on suspicion they supported armed Islamist groups. Human Rights Watch called on Mali's interim government to investigate the deaths and improve conditions for all detainees.
Some information in this report provided by Reuters.