Mali officials abducted ahead of presidential vote

Chadian troops in the desert near Tessalit in March. Chadian and French troops are in Tessalit

Gunmen in northern Mali have abducted two election officials a week before presidential elections - the first since the military coup in 2012.

The two men were seized at a checkpoint between the town of Tessalit and a local airport, local officials said.

No group has so far claimed responsibility for the attack.

Early this month, Mali lifted a state of emergency in place since January, when France intervened to help drive out Islamists occupying the north.

Ethnic clashes

The two election officials, one of whom is believed to be a deputy mayor of the town of Kidal, were among six Malians who had been due to distribute voters' cards in Tessalit.

They were seized after their car stopped at the checkpoint.

Initial, unconfirmed reports suggested that six Malians were abducted.

Ministry of territorial affairs spokesman Gamer Dicko said it was the first time Malian election officials had been targeted - and no request for a ransom payment had been received.

The BBC's Alex Duval Smith in Bamako says that the elections officials may be viewed by their captors as representatives of the Malian government and its close links with France.

Chadian troops serving with Minusma are deployed in Tessalit, alongside French troops from Operation Serval.

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

The ethnic clashes in Kidal involve Tuaregs and black civilians.

Tuareg rebels held the town until a June deal with the government.

Under the deal, fighters from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) are allowed to remain in the town but they are supposed to disarm.

Kidal is the only town in Mali where the Tuaregs form a majority.

The Tuaregs have launched several rebellions since Mali's independence in 1960, accusing the government in Bamako of ignoring the northern areas where they live.

Many Malians blame Tuareg separatists for starting the 2012 rebellion which led Islamists to seize northern areas.

French and West African forces intervened in January to force the Islamist militant groups out of the desert towns but security remains a concern.

The elections are aimed at restoring civilian authority over the country.

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