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Mali’s Tuareg rebels have agreed to a ceasefire, two days after clashes with the army threatened to throw the country back into chaos.
Three Tuareg rebel groups occupying the key northern town of Kidal signed the agreement after talks with African Union chairman Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz.
Some 20 Malian soldiers have died since Wednesday in fighting over who holds the town.
The separatists have gained control of much of northern Mali in recent days.
Tuareg rebels have agreed to a ceasefire, two days after clashes with the army threatened to throw Mali back into chaos
In 2012 a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali triggered a military coup in the capital, Bamako and an Islamist takeover of the north.
Civilian rule was re-established in 2013, but Islamist and separatist forces remain active in some areas.
Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, the president of Mauritania, flew to Kidal on Friday to meet rebel groups including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
Minister for Internal Security General Sada Samake signed the ceasefire on behalf of the Malian government at 21:30 GMT on Friday.
The ceasefire agreement includes a pledge to revive talks and the release of 300 Tuareg prisoners held in the capital.
Violence broke out in Kidal on Saturday when Malian PM Moussa Mara visited the town to show support for government forces based there.
The rebels seized government buildings, killed at least eight civilians and took around 30 hostages, who were later released.
The separatists said they defeated government forces the town on Wednesday.
MNLA fighters have also taken control of several other towns in the north, including Menaka, Agelhok, Anefis and Tessalit. They said earlier on Friday that they were close to the key city of Gao.
The government has accused the Tuaregs of being backed by al-Qaeda militants, and called for an immediate ceasefire.
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RFI journalists Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont have been killed after they were kidnapped in the northern town of Kidal in Mali.
Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont were abducted after interviewing a local political leader. Their bodies were found outside the town soon after.
French President Francois Hollande called the killings “despicable”.
The killings come days after France was celebrating the release of four hostages from neighboring Niger.
Radio France Internationale (RFI) said Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont were on their second assignment in Kidal, having travelled to the town in July to cover the first round of the presidential election.
RFI journalists Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont have been killed after they were kidnapped in the northern town of Kidal in Mali
Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, a local official of the MNLA ethnic Tuareg separatist group, said Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont had just finished interviewing him when they were kidnapped outside his house.
“When they left, I heard a strange noise outside,” he told Reuters news agency by telephone.
“I immediately went out to see and when I opened my door, a turbaned man pointed a gun at me and told me go back inside.”
Sources said four men forced the journalists into a beige truck which was then driven off into the surrounding desert.
One report said the kidnappers’ vehicle was being pursued by the security forces, possibly including the French army. A French attack helicopter was seen above Kidal a few hours after the abduction occurred.
The bodies of the two journalists were found some 8 miles outside Kidal, sources said.
Confirming their deaths, the French foreign ministry said it would “in conjunction with the Malian authorities, make every effort to find out as soon as possible about the circumstances of their death”.
A statement from President Francois Hollande’s office said he “expresses his indignation over this despicable act”, adding that he is meeting ministers on Sunday to discuss the incident.
Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont’s deaths bring to 42 the number of journalists around the world killed so far in 2013.
Two French journalists have been kidnapped in the northern Mali town of Kidal.
The governor of the region, Colonel Adama Kamissoko, told Reuters news agency “they were abducted by four armed men”. He said the pair left the capital Bamako for Kidal on Tuesday.
Radio France Internationale (RFI) confirmed on its website that two of its journalists had been kidnapped.
They have been named in French media as Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont.
Two French journalists have been kidnapped in the northern Mali town of Kidal
The French foreign ministry says it is checking the reports.
The journalists had been interviewing Kidal resident Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, a local official of the MNLA ethnic Tuareg separatist group, Reuters reports.
“When they left, I heard a strange noise outside. I immediately went out to see and when I opened my door, a turbaned man pointed a gun at me and told me go back inside,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“I could not see how many men were there,” he said.
France led an operation to oust Islamist rebels from northern Mali – its former colony – earlier this year, sending in thousands of troops.
It handed over responsibility for security to a UN force in the summer, however French troops are still in the country helping to prevent a resurgence of militant activity in the region.
French jets have carried out air strikes in Mali’s far north as they try to secure the final rebel stronghold of Kidal after a three-week offensive.
Thirty jets targeted Islamist militants’ training and communication centres around Tessalit – a mountainous area near the Algerian border.
France’s President Francois Hollande has pledged to help rebuild Mali after the rebels who seized its north are beaten.
But there are fears the fighters could re-group in the mountains near Kidal.
It is believed that several French civilian hostages are being held by militants in the area, making the situation even more delicate.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio on Monday that the air strikes were aimed at “destroying the bases and depots” of the rebels.
He said: “They cannot stay there a long time unless they have new supplies.”
Although French troops captured Kidal’s airport on Wednesday, rebels from a Tuareg group who want their own homeland in northern Mali – the MNLA – still have control of the town itself.
Malian Interim President Dioncounda Traore has offered to hold talks with the MNLA in order to help secure Kidal.
At the same time, French-led forces will begin chasing down Islamist militants who have retreated to desert or mountainous hide-outs.
Tessalit is about 200 km (125 miles) north of Kidal and is a gateway to the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where rebels are believed to have sought refuge after being forced from the main population centres in the north and east of the country.
French jets have carried out air strikes in Mali’s far north as they try to secure the final rebel stronghold of Kidal after a three-week offensive
Reports have also emerged that a senior figure in the main militant Islamist movement – Ansar Dine – has been captured near the Algerian border by a rival separatist group.
Malian security sources quoted by AFP news agency named the man as Mohamed Moussa Ag Mouhamed, third in command of the group. The report cannot be verified.
Speaking in Bamako on Saturday, Francois Hollande pledged more French aid to its former colony and vowed to restore cultural sites damaged by the rebels.
Francois Hollande received a warm welcome on Saturday as he visited the northern desert city of Timbuktu, which was recaptured by French and Malian troops a week ago.
On Monday, Laurent Fabius said France intended to hand over control of Timbuktu to African forces as soon as possible.
He said a French withdrawal from the city “could take place very quickly, we are working on it”.
A total of 3,500 French troops are currently in Mali.
Nearly 2,000 army personnel from Chad and Niger are helping consolidate the recent gains. A further 6,000 troops will be deployed as part of the UN-backed African-led International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma).
Despite the rapid progress of French forces in recapturing parts of the north, it may be premature to talk of mission accomplished, analysts say.
It is thought the mountainous areas around Kidal provide perfect hiding places for the militants.
On Saturday Francois Hollande said it would be wrong to assume the operation was over while Dioncounda Traore said it would be difficult to completely rid the country of Islamists.
France’s President Francois Hollande is visiting Mali, three weeks after French-led troops launched an offensive to oust Islamist rebels from the country’s north.
Francois Hollande was welcomed by dignitaries and residents in Timbuktu, six days after the city was recaptured.
He is expected to thank the French soldiers and stress the need for an African force to replace them swiftly.
Meanwhile, the UN has warned of the risk of reprisal attacks against Tuareg and Arab communities in northern Mali.
The UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, said there had been serious allegations of human rights violations committed by the Malian army, including summary executions and disappearances.
There had also been reports of incidents of mob lynching and looting of properties belonging to Arab and Tuareg communities, which had been accused of supporting armed Islamist groups, Adama Dieng added.
“I call on the Malian army to discharge its responsibility to protect all populations, irrespective of their race or ethnicity,” he said.
The allegations came as heavily-armored columns of French and Malian troops continued their advance in northern Mali.
They are attempting to secure the north-eastern city of Kidal, the militants’ last stronghold, having captured the airport on Wednesday.
France’s President Francois Hollande is visiting Mali, three weeks after French-led troops launched an offensive to oust Islamist rebels from the country’s north
Francois Hollande flew into the central town of Sevare on Saturday morning, accompanied by his ministers of defence, foreign affairs and development. Mali’s interim President, Dioncounda Traore, met them at the airport.
They then flew to Timbuktu’s airport before being driven to the 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber and the Ahmed Baba Institute, where fleeing militants set fire to about 2,000 priceless manuscripts.
Thousands of locals gathered in the city’s main square to welcome Francois Hollande. Many changed “Vive la France” and praised the president for ordering the military intervention in France’s former colony.
“The women of Timbuktu will thank Francois Hollande forever,” 53-year-old Fanta Diarra Toure told the AFP news agency.
“We must tell him that he has cut down the tree but still has to tear up its roots,” she added, referring to the Islamist militants.
Speaking on Friday before he flew to Mali, Francois Hollande said he wanted “to express to our soldiers all our support, encouragement and pride”.
“I’m also going to ensure that African forces come and join us as quickly as possible and to tell them we need them for this international force,” he added.
He said he wanted Mali’s transitional government to restore democracy soon and begin a political dialogue with opposition groups in the north.
However, this is not quite a “mission accomplished” moment for Francois Hollande, because the Islamist militants remain a threat.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday that the French-led forces had recaptured the major population centres “must faster” than he had expected, but warned that they now had to ensure long-term security.
“They have made tremendous progress, I give them a lot of credit,” he told the AFP news agency.
“But the challenge now is to make sure that you can maintain that security and that you are not overstretched and that, ultimately, as you begin to pull back, that the other African nations are prepared to move in and fill the gap of providing security.”
French-led troops have entered Kidal in the north of Mali, the last major town they have yet to secure in their drive against Islamist militants.
French forces now control Kidal airport after a number of aircraft, including helicopters, landed there overnight.
Islamist militants were reported to have already left the town and it was unclear who was in charge.
French and Malian forces have been sweeping north, earlier taking Gao and Timbuktu with almost no resistance.
France – the former colonial power in Mali – launched a military operation this month after Islamist militants appeared to be threatening the south.
French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard confirmed that: “French elements were deployed overnight in Kidal.”
One regional security source told Agence France-Presse that French aircraft had landed at Kidal and that “protection helicopters are in the sky”.
Kidal, 1,500 km (930 miles) north-east of the capital Bamako, was until recently under the control of the Ansar Dine Islamist group.
However, the Islamic Movement of Azawad (IMA), which recently split from Ansar Dine, said it was now in charge in Kidal, although the Tuareg group – the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad – also claims control.
An MNLA spokesman said its fighters had entered the city on Saturday and there were no Islamist militants there.
Some reports say Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly and Abou Zeid, of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have moved to the mountainous region north of Kidal.
French-led troops have entered Kidal in the north of Mali, the last major town they have yet to secure in their drive against Islamist militants
A spokesman for the IMA confirmed the French arrival in the town and said that its leader was now in talks with them.
The IMA recently said it rejected “extremism and terrorism” and wanted a peaceful solution.
The MNLA has also said it is prepared to work with the French “to eradicate terrorist groups” in the north but that it would not allow the return of the Malian army, which it accused of “crimes against the civilian population”.
Taking Kidal will mark the end of the first phase of the French military intervention, but that there will remain the difficult task of chasing the fighters down across the vast desert.
Islamist extremists took advantage of a military coup in March last year to control a number of cities in the north and impose Sharia law.
The French arrival at Kidal came only 24 hours after securing Timbuktu with Malian forces.
The troops had to secure the streets after hundreds of people looted shops they said had belonged to militant sympathizers.
France has been pushing for the swift deployment of an African Union-backed force, the International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma), to take control of Malian towns.
On Tuesday, international donors meeting in Ethiopia pledged $455.53 million for Afisma and for other projects.
African leaders say the overall budget could be around $950 million.
France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the meeting impressive progress had been made but that this did not mean the danger was over.
Laurent Fabius also said credible elections in Mali would be vital to achieving sustainable peace in the country.
Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore said on Tuesday that he wanted to hold “transparent and credible” elections by July 31.
French-led troops in Mali have taken control of the airport in the key northern city of Timbuktu, French military officials say.
The troops encountered no resistance as they headed towards the city, a senior officer with the Malian army told AFP news agency.
French and Malian troops have been pushing north in their offensive against Islamist rebels.
On Saturday, they seized Gao, the most populous city in northern Mali.
Thousands of people poured out into the streets to celebrate the arrival of the troops.
French-led troops in Mali have taken control of the airport in the key northern city of Timbuktu
Islamists seized the north of the country last year, but have been losing ground since French forces launched an operation earlier this month.
The advance comes as African Union leaders are meeting to discuss sending more troops to Mali.
“We control the airport at Timbuktu,” a senior Malian army officer told the AFP.
“We did not encounter any resistance.”
A military spokesman in Paris told the AFP that the French and Malian troops now control access to the city as well as the territory between Timbuktu and Gao.
Once Timbuktu is secured, the French-led troops are expected to focus on the last rebel stronghold, Kidal, near the border with Algeria.
Kidal – home of the head of Ansar Dine, the main militant group in northern Mali – was bombed overnight by French forces, Malian officials say.
Once Kidal is taken, the first phase of the French operation will be over.
The second phase will be to track down the militants to their desert hideouts, which could prove a much more difficult task.