Nouakchott — Mauritanian President and African Union head Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz announced Friday (May 23rd) in Bamako the signing of a ceasefire deal between Touareg separatist groups and the Mali government.
Violent clashes erupted more than a week ago and ended in a defeat for the Malian army, with the rebels capturing the town of Kidal and the smaller settlement of Menaka.
"About 50 members of the Malian forces were killed during the recent clashes in Kidal with the armed groups that have controlled the city since May 21," Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga said Sunday.
The situation in northern Mali suddenly deteriorated on May 17th after Prime Minister Moussa Mara visited Kidal. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which accused the Malian army of attacking its positions in the town, responded violently.
The Mauritanian president cut short a visit to Rwanda to hold urgent ceasefire talks with the Touareg groups: the MNLA, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA).
Ould Abdel Aziz was accompanied by officials from MINUSMA and the AU.
During a press conference in Bamako, the Mauritanian president said he was "optimistic about the future for the return of peace to the region".
"The agreement was signed by all parties, including the three armed groups and the Malian government," Ould Abdel Aziz added.
"As for the unfortunate situation of instability and insecurity that prevails in Mali, as it sadly does in many African countries," he said, "our response is to make the necessary effort to firstly calm people down and initiate dialogue between brothers."
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita welcomed Ould Abdel Aziz's intervention to support his country in the face of crisis.
"The government of Mali is permanently open to dialogue between brothers, and it was for this reason that the prime minister made a routine visit to all provinces of Mali. This tour was welcomed by all Malians, including the rebels," he added.
But Keita said that he "vehemently condemns the acts that followed the end of the prime minister's visit to Kidal, including the encirclement of the meeting venue, the murder of the prefect and the attack against representatives of the Malian authorities".
UN Special Envoy Albert Koenders said the ceasefire was a "solid" agreement that should enable political negotiations to begin as soon as possible.
In his view, the ceasefire was necessary but it was even more important that the armed groups consented "to go back to the Ouagadougou agreement".
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also hailed the move and called for "the crisis in northern Mali to be brought to an end once and for all".
Despite the progress, the situation remains fragile and an al-Qaeda breakaway group, Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), is still active.
The MNLA on Saturday said that clashes were "ongoing between the forces of Azawad and the obscurantist forces of MUJAO in the vicinity of the town of Tabankort".
"What just happened in northern Mali is a sign that groups such as AQIM and MUJAO are still there and they are still a force to be reckoned with," terrorism expert Sidati Ould Cheikh told Magharebia.