Mali's north remains tense

Kidal - After the first round of Mali's presidential elections, Tuareg rebels confined to camps in the north are preparing to discuss the future of their vast desert homeland with the country's new leader.

Yet in Kidal, a remote town on an ancient Saharan trading route from where the light-skinned, turban-clad warriors have staged four revolts since the 1960s, long-term peace is a distant dream.

Voting for the next head-of-state went ahead without incident in the Tuareg stronghold, 1 500km north-east of Bamako, near the Algerian border.

But local people were hardly engaged with the ballot: turnout was estimated by the election commission at 12% in the district.

Many Tuareg - whose families have worked the trans-Saharan caravan routes for hundreds of years - want nothing less than complete independence for Azawad. That is the name they give to the northern desert that makes up nearly two-thirds of Mali.

"We expect that the next president to begin talks with us in line with what was envisaged in Ouagadougou," said Sidi Mohammed Ag Sarid, homeland security spokesperson for the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). He was referring to the June ceasefire deal signed with the government in the Burkinabe capital.

The Ouagadougou accords provide for the launch of an "inclusive dialogue" between the new Malian administration and the rebels, 60 days after the new cabinet is formed.

"Ibrahim Boubacar Keita may be the man for the job, given his past," Sarid said of the former prime minister who has a clear early lead according to unofficial estimates of the first round vote.

"He has never been responsible for acts that have harmed Azawad."

Liberal approach

The MNLA and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), another Tuareg signatory to the ceasefire deal, have their troops confined to camps in Kidal, as envisaged by the agreement.

But they are taking a somewhat liberal approach to how they should interpret "confined", a Malian army officer told AFP.

"In accordance with the Ouagadougou agreement, we don't go out in town armed or in uniform," says Moulay Ag Kassoundi, head of the HCUA camp, which includes former members of the Islamist militant group Ansar Dine.

"But how can you remain confined to camps without water, electricity or food? We have received nothing for the past month and so combatants have to come and go in search of food."

Out of more than 600 fighters claimed to be in the ranks of the HCUA, only a few dozen were present at the camp when AFP visited.

It was the same situation for the MNLA, which claims a similar manpower: but it is impossible to get a real idea of the size of the force, with fighters constantly moving from one unit to another.

"I'm concerned," said HCUA secretary-general Mohammed Ag Intalla, son of the chief of the Ifoghas clan, the most influential Tuareg tribe.

"We came up with the Ouagadougou agreement, but it has not been applied.

"It envisaged the release of prisoners, which has not happened, and the confinement to camps has not been done properly," he added.

"If we cannot apply a little deal like this, how can we hope to see a wide-ranging agreement respected?"

Threat to security

When they are out and about in Kidal, the Tuareg rebels sometimes cross paths with Malian army patrols: there have been 150 government soldiers in the town since the start of July.

It is always a tense encounter, with each side, flying its own flag, accusing the other of provocation.

Graffiti cover the walls across Kidal, proclaiming "Azawad" and "We are not Malians". This is the capital of a region awash with arms and which was largely beyond government control before July.

"The Malian army goes around the city, out of control. It is a threat to security," says rebel commander Moulay Ag Kassoundi.

"When they see us, they try to chase us. They know we are rebels against the Malian government."

The army is still nursing its wounds after being routed last year in Kidal and other northern settlements by Tuareg rebels and their onetime Islamist allies.

Relations between the majority black communities in Mali and the Tuareg and Arab minorities are strained, but the rebels insist they are not interested in ethnic conflict.

"We have nothing against the Malian army - which includes many ethnic groups with which we have no problem - but against individuals who have scores to settle with the people of Kidal under cover of the state of Mali," says Mohammed Ag Intalla, referring to the men of Colonel Alaji Ag Gamou, a Tuareg unit loyal to the government in Bamako.

"We have gone after Colonel Gamou's militia. They have returned and want revenge," says Ama Ag Midy, co-ordinator of the MNLA camp.

"They mistreat women, they have gone into people's homes, arrested people without reason."

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