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Mali government, rebels sign ceasefire deal

The Mali government and the three main rebel groups in the northern desert signed a ceasefire deal Friday, the United Nations said, after dozens of soldiers were killed or wounded.

DAKAR: The Mali government and the three main rebel groups in the northern desert signed a ceasefire deal Friday, the United Nations said, after dozens of soldiers were killed or wounded.

Around 20 Malian soldiers have been killed and 30 wounded since Wednesday as Tuareg and Arab insurgents captured the flashpoint town of Kidal and the smaller settlement of Menaka, according to the defence ministry.

The army has been pinned back by a coalition of several armed groups, including Tuareg separatists.

Kidal is the cradle of Mali's Tuareg separatist movement, which wants independence for a vast swathe of northern desert it calls "Azawad" and which has launched several rebellions since the 1960s.

"At 21:30 (local time and GMT)... a ceasefire agreement was signed between the Mali government and the MNLA, the HCUC and the MAA," the UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) said in a statement received by AFP in Dakar.

According to MINUSMA, the parties agreed to "immediate negotiations with support from the UN and regional and international partners."

The deal was signed first by the Tuareg rebels, following talks with African Union chairman Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who travelled by private jet to the rebel-held Kidal in the far northeast of the country.

Hours later the announcement came that the government had signed the deal.

The ceasefire takes immediate effect, Mauritanian President Abdel Aziz said on Mali public television.

Abdel Aziz cut short a visit to Rwanda to hold the urgent ceasefire talks with the Tuareg rebels groups: National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUC) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA).

He travelled by private jet and then helicopter to Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) northeast of Bamako, accompanied by Bert Koenders, the head of MINUSMA.

Bamako and the rebel group also agreed to release prisoners as soon as possible, to facilitate UN humanitarian efforts "and to respect the principles of human rights," MINUSMA said.

They also agreed to setting up an international commission of enquiry to look into the country's recent troubles.

Meanwhile government officials said strategic errors were to blame for the army's defeat in Kidal.

"There was a big failure in the chain of command... It is clear that someone in the army took an initiative that was not theirs to take," a senior official told AFP.

The MNLA ended a nine-month occupation of the governor's offices in November last year as one of the conditions of a June peace deal that paved the way for presidential elections.

But the process deeply divided the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad.

Up until the agreement, the Tuareg group had refused to allow any government soldiers or civil servants into Kidal.

The country descended into crisis in January 2012, when the MNLA launched the latest in a string of Tuareg insurgencies in the north.

A subsequent coup in Bamako led to chaos, and militants linked to Al-Qaeda overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of Mali's northern desert.

A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 ousted the extremists, but sporadic attacks have continued, and the Tuareg demand for autonomy has not been resolved.

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