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Mali Rebels Sign Initial Peace Agreement

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Mali's Tuareg-led rebels signed up to a preliminary peace agreement with the government on Thursday as a gesture of "good faith" to end decades of separatist fighting, but said they would need more guarantees before signing a final accord.

Mali's government accepted the U.N. and Algerian-backed deal in March, but the Tuareg-led coalition argued that the proposal fell short of their demands for the northern region, which they call Azawad, and sporadic fighting has continued.

Western powers want a conclusive accord, fearing turmoil will allow Islamist militants to return to the north after French military intervention drove them out.

The rebel alliance, Coordination of Azawad Movements, known by its French initials CMA, said they would still need more work on a conclusive deal with the government. They had said this week they would not attend a final signing ceremony that had been planned for Friday in Bamako.

"Despite the constraints, the CMA agrees to initial this document in the spirit of good faith," rebel representative Ibrahim Mohamed Essadek said reading a statement from the alliance's leadership. "Some of its aspects need to be worked on with the mediators and the Mali government."

Tuaregs have risen up four times since Mali's independence from France in 1960. Most recently, they formed an alliance with Islamist militants in 2012 to seize the desert north. A French-led military intervention scattered the insurgents, although isolated attacks continue.

The Algiers document in March proposed more devolved powers for the north, a regional security force and a special development plan. But it left open the question of Azawad's political identity to a national debate between Malian parties.

Mali's government refused full autonomy for Azawad, but said it would devolve more authority under the country's decentralized structure. Rebels have pushed for a federal system to allow more local powers.

Fighting on the ground between rebels and pro-Bamako armed groups has also hampered progress to a final deal. At least nine Malian soldiers were killed in an ambush by separatist rebels near the northern town of Timbuktu on Monday.

"I am aware that the reality on the ground could push some to be pessimistic," Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said at the conference. "We urge all to comply to the agreements signed in Algiers and stop provocations."