Mali lifts state of emergency ahead of presidential vote

Fighters with the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) stands guard as members of the group met with the Malian army, the UN mission in Mali and French army officers, in Kidal June 23, 2013 The Tuareg MNLA has signed a peace accord with the Malian government

Mali has lifted a state of emergency in place since January, when France intervened to help drive out Islamists occupying the north, officials say.

The move comes after Mali's army re-entered the key town of Kidal, held by Tuareg rebels, to improve security ahead of the presidential election.

Rebels agreed to allow troops into the northern town as part of a peace deal.

The election on 28 July will be the first in Mali since the military staged a coup in 2012.

The occupation of Kidal had been a major obstacle to organising the presidential election.

Tuareg rebels captured the town after the French-led offensive forced militant Islamists out of northern Mali in February.

Peace accord

The Tuaregs have been fighting for autonomy in the north since Mali gained independence from France in 1960.

They say they are marginalised by the government in the capital, Bamako.

The main Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), had worked with Islamist groups to seize the north of the country in 2012.

But the rebel movement later broke with the Islamist groups and backed French efforts to oust them.

Mali crisis timeline

  • October 2011: Ethnic Tuaregs launch new rebellion after returning with weapons from Libya, where they had fought for Gaddafi
  • March 2012: Military officers depose President Amadou Toumani Toure over handling of rebellion
  • April 2012: Tuareg and Islamist fighters seize control of northern Mali, declare independence
  • June 2012: Islamist groups capture towns of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao from Tuaregs, start to destroy Muslim shrines that offend their puritan views
  • January 2013: Islamist fighters advance south, raising fears they could march on capital. Interim President Dioncounda Traore asks France for help. France intervenes, along with neighbouring countries. Northern towns recaptured
  • April 2013: France and Chad begin to withdraw
  • July 2013: State of emergency lifted. Mali troops re-enter Kidal. Deployment of a UN peace force to incorporate the West African force on the ground. Nationwide elections due

In June, the Malian government signed a peace deal with the MNLA, calling for an immediate ceasefire and for government troops to return to Kidal.

The MNLA has watered down its demand for independence, saying it will settle, as a first step, for autonomy for the desert region where they live.

Earlier this week, Mali's constitutional court approved 28 presidential candidates, including four former prime ministers and a woman.

But the head of the electoral commission, Mamadou Diamoutani, expressed doubt that the polls would be free and fair.

"Currently, the big challenge is the distribution of 6,867,443 voters' cards - we have four weeks to do it," he said.

"That job alone is tremendously difficult, given that 800,000 people are displaced or have become refugees."

A 12,600-strong UN peacekeeping force has been deployed to ensure stability in the lead-up to the nationwide vote.

The force - known by its French acronym Minusma - incorporates most of the 6,000 West African troops already in the country.

It is the third largest UN force in Africa, after those in Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur.

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