Pro-government militias withdrew from a flashpoint town in northern Mali on Friday, removing a key obstacle to a long-delayed U.N.-backed peace deal due to be signed this weekend.
Mali’s turbulent desert north is home to secular armed groups who have been battling each other for control of the strategic town of Menaka for the past two months.
Western powers are hoping Saturday’s peace deal will help focus resources on fighting Islamist militants who are profiting from the chaos to launch attacks on U.N. and Malian targets.
In a sign of the security challenges, unidentified men on motorbikes attacked a U.N. convoy near the town of Gao, security sources said. Nobody was killed in the attack, they added.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters, who briefly held the north until a French military operation scattered them in 2013, have spread further south towards Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso in recent months and carried out attacks in the capital Bamako.
Mostly Tuareg separatists rebels, who have refused to sign past versions of the deal, said they would not agree unless rival groups loyal to the Malian government left Menaka.
The Malian army and sources from the U.N peacekeeping force (MINUSMA) confirmed their departure on Friday. One MINUSMA source said that a convoy of 60 vehicles had left the town.
“We have handed over control of the town to MINUSMA and the Malian army and we have left,” said Fahad Ag Al Mahamoud, secretary general of a pro-Bamako armed group GATIA, part of a broader coalition called Platform.
The U.N. special envoy for the Mali mission said the departure from Menaka was a clear and reassuring sign that the peace process was on track.
“MINUSMA praises the courageous and responsible decision made by Platform showing their commitment to advancing the peace process for the benefit of all Malians,” said Mongi Hamdi.
Residents in the northern town of Kidal said that leaders from a Tuareg-led coalition of armed groups known as Coordination of Azawad Mouvements (CMA) were preparing to depart for the Bamako signing ceremony.
“We are going to sign the agreement for peace tomorrow in Bamako,” said Zeina Ag Mohamed, part of the CMA delegation in Kidal.
A planned demonstration in Kidal against the deal was postponed, residents said. The agreement, completed after five rounds of negotiations, was already approved by the Malian government and by Platform in March.