/ 17 February 2009

Tuareg rebels lay down weapons to join peace process

Hundreds of former Tuareg rebels on Tuesday formally joined Mali’s peace process at a disarmament ceremony in this northern town, marking the end of an uprising.

Several hundred rebels returned to Kidal, their home town before the conflict, and laid their weapons on the runway of the local airport in the presence of officials from Mali’s government and other former rebels.

The ceremony is a key step outlined in a July 2006 Algiers peace agreement between the Bamako government and Tuareg rebels.

”This ceremony is very important for our country because our people should only face one fight, the struggle against underdevelopment,” Mali’s minister for territorial administration, General Kafougouna Kone, said.

Observers say the ceremony marks an the end to the Tuareg uprising against the Malian authorities with the majority of the rebels now formally committed to the peace process.

Algeria was represented by its ambassador to Bamako, Abdelkrim Ghrieb, who has been a mediator in the talks.

The Tuaregs, a nomadic desert people who have roamed the southern Sahara for centuries, have been at odds with the Malian government since the country became independent in the 1960s.

They initially demanded autonomy for their traditional homeland.

After the parties signed a peace agreement in 2006 in which the rebels dropped their demand for autonomy for the Kidal region after the government pledged to speed up the development of three northern regions in Mali, the conflict flared up again with several rebel groups walking out on the peace process.

In January, the Malian army started a successful offensive against the remaining renegade rebels which resulted in the majority of the dissident groups announcing they would return to the peace process.

The Kidal ceremony had been postponed several times due to disagreement over aspects of the disarmament process.

The ceremony saw rebels from the Alliance for Democracy and Change (ADC) formally join the peace process, along with members of another group led by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, the last remaining Tuareg to reject the Algerian-brokered accord.

”We are resolutely committed to peace. That is the reason we came to Kidal,” ADC spokesperson Amada Ag Bibi told AFP.

After laying down their machine guns, rocket launchers and grenades on the Kidal airport runway, the rebels made their entry into the centre of town.

A caravan of hundreds of pick-up trucks drove the fighters, some in military fatigues and others in civilian clothing into the town centre.

Amid the sound of car horns honking in celebration the population of Kidal welcomed the former rebels with applause and shouts of ”Long live peace!”

”We are happy that two years after the Algiers agreement things are coming to a solution. We expect both parties to act. The position of Algeria is to help Mali to find definitive peace,” Algerian ambassador Ghrieb said.

”Today, a decisive new step has been marked in bringing reality to the commitments that we solidly backed under the Algiers accord.”

According to the Malian authorities Ag Bahanga, the only Tuareg leader still opposed to peace, is at large and there are reports that he has fled the country. — Sapa-AFP