Unidentified gunmen in Mali have kidnapped several election workers, a week before the presidential election meant to restore the restive country's unity, officials say.
The workers were seized on Saturday from the country’s northern Kidal province, Gamer Dicko, spokesman for the Ministry of Territorial Administration, said.
Five poll workers and an elected Tessalit official, all of them Malian, had been at the town hall in Tessalit, a remote town about 200km north of the flashpoint northern city of Kidal, to plan the distribution of ID cards to registered voters when they were abducted.
The abductions come as Mali's government tries to extend its authority over the country's vast north following last year's coup and a French-led operation against Kidal-based ethnic Tuareg rebels who have agreed to relinquish their claims of independence and allow Mali to hold presidential elections on July 28.
A Malian security ministry official said the kidnapping appeared to be the work of the minority-Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
"Everything indicates this is an attack by the MNLA, which doesn't want there to be an election," the official said.
The MNLA took control of Kidal in February after a French-led operation ousted local and al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had seized control of most of northern Mali.
The Malian authorities finally reclaimed the city after signing a deal with the MNLA and another Tuareg group on June 18 aimed at reuniting the country and clearing the way for elections.
Under the deal, MNLA forces moved into barracks as 150 regular Malian troops were deployed to secure Kidal in the run-up to the vote.
The fresh abductions come after violence between Tuaregs and Mali's majority black population rocked Kidal on Thursday and Friday.
Officials said armed men went on a rampage on Thursday, looting and ransacking shops and businesses, killing four people and wounding many others even as on Friday, unidentified arsonists set fire to the city's central market.
"Armed men attacked the population favourable to Mali in the town of Kidal, killing four people," the government said in a statement.
The clashes were a violation of June's truce signed in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, it said.
According to the Reuters news agency, the MNLA separatist group has denied that its fighters were involved in the violence and that they had dishonoured the Ouagadougou agreement.