Mali’s prime minister visited Kidal on Friday, the first senior government delegation in three years to visit the city, under the control of Tuareg rebels since 2012.
Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga and eight ministers are making a nine-stop national tour to shore up support for the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita ahead of national elections planned for July 29.
“The head of government (Maiga) will meet political and administrative authorities of the area and pay a visit to traditional chiefs,” the statement announcing his arrival by helicopter said.
Worsening security raised doubts about whether the vote can go ahead, especially in Kidal, where much of the population wants to secede and create an independent Tuareg state.
Mali has been in turmoil since Tuareg-led rebels and Islamist militants in 2012 seized control of the country’s desert north.
French forces intervened the following year to push them back, but lawlessness persisted, with frequent attacks on the interests of national governments and Western powers spreading across the region.
Government overtures like this will be vital for building trust and helping secure Mali’s north, but previous attempts to pacify Kidal have not gone well.
In 2014, former Prime Minister Moussa Mara’s delegation was greeted with gun and rocket fire. A battle between the Malian army and Tuaregs at the time killed at least 50 soldiers and forced Kidal state governor Sidi Mohamed Ag Ichrach to flee.
After that, Mali’s central government more or less gave up on trying to re-establish sovereignty over Kidal, but a ceasefire deal between pro and anti-government Tuareg factions last year, and subsequent talks, made this latest visit possible with the consent of the main factions.
Ichrach was able to return to Kidal last year following that deal. But the Islamists remain opposed to any talks, and last Thursday, a UN peacekeepers’ camp near Kidal in Mali came under mortar fire from suspected Islamists.