Two rival rebel groups in Mali have agreed to stop fighting, a day after the United Nations Security Council approved on a French-drafted resolution authorising full military intervention in the West African country.
The al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine and the Tuareg fighters of MNLA vowed on Friday “to refrain from all actions that would cause confrontation and hostilities in the areas that they control”.
The two groups, who took control of large swathes of northern Mali earlier this year, met in the Algerian capital Algiers, where representatives signed the agreement.
Northern Mali, including the town of Timbuktu, is primarily under the control of al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch, which has made millions of dollars through ransoms and is currently holding captive seven French nationals.
Algeria’s agreement to serve as mediator between the two rebel groups came a day after French President Francois Hollande visited the former colony.
Algeria shares a long border with Mali, and has a Tuareg population which crosses in and out. It has shown reluctance over the plan for a military intervention.
On Thursday, the UN’s most powerful body gave an African-led force an initial one-year mandate to use “all necessary measures” to help Mali reclaim the north of the country.
But the Council insisted military force could only be used after political efforts were exhausted. It said military plans would have to be refined and approved by the Council before any offensive started.
Herve Ladsous, the UN peacekeeping chief, also said he does not expect a military operation to begin until September or October of 2013.
Meanwhile, UN chief Ban Ki-moon pressed Mali’s interim government to hold free elections as soon as possible as part of preparations for an international intervention force to end the country’s armed conflict.
Ban urged such a vote during talks with Mali’s Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly on “the growing suffering of the Mali people”, according to a UN statement.
The UN leader has raised doubts about the force and publicly insisted on the preference for reaching a political settlement to end the northern occupation.
Ban, as well as Western countries, has raised concerns about interference in the government by the Malian military, which staged a coup in March setting off the chaotic events that facilitated a land grab by rebels and Islamists.
Dismay in Timbuktu
In northern Mali, residents living under the grip of al-Qaeda-linked fighters have expressed dismay that it could be nearly a year before a regional military intervention attempts to oust the Islamists from power.
“We want rapid military action to liberate our cities,” said Alphadi Cisse, who lives in Timbuktu. “There is no school, there is no work and no money. We are fed up with this situation.”
The mayor of Timbuktu, which is controlled by the Islamist group Ansar Dine, has described conditions there as “a living hell.’.
The al-Qaeda-linked fighters have imposed their version of strict Islamic law known as Sharia.
They have stoned to death a couple accused of adultery, hacked off the hands of thieves and have recruited children as young as 12 into their ranks.
Heavily armed men also have attacked bars that sell alcohol, and banned men and women from socialising in the streets.
The turmoil has decimated the economy of Timbuktu, once a thriving tourist town.