Mali’s government and an alliance of Tuareg-led northern rebels agreed to cease hostilities on Thursday to ease tensions during U.N.-sponsored peace negotiations aimed at ending decades of uprisings.
The talks hosted by Algiers, the fifth round of recent negotiations, must now turn to the tricky questions over identity, a form of limited self-rule and more rights for the northern desert region the rebels call Azawad.
Western governments are keen for a lasting peace in Mali, fearing Islamist militants will again profit from the unrest in the north to gain a foothold, two years after French troops intervened to drive them out.
U.N. Mali mission chief Mongi Hamdi has said he expects this to be the last step to a final peace agreement. But talks have been hampered by fighting on the ground and differences over how to devolve powers, and even the name of the north.
Thursday’s deal, which calls for an immediate halt to hostilities and provocations, was signed by the rebel coalition, including Tuareg MNLA and Arab MAA groups as well as the Mali government and a pro-Bamako alliance.
“This is an advance in building confidence and consolidating a ceasefire on the ground,” Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra told reporters at the signing ceremony.
MNLA leader Bilal Ag Acherif said the document should facilitate talks in “good faith” between the parties.
Bamako and rebel groups agreed last year to a preliminary roadmap set out for talks. A U.N. initial document recognizes Mali’s unity and territorial integrity, but also the need for more rights and development for the north.
Mali’s government says it will not discuss northern autonomy, but will talk about devolving more local authority.
Rebels are seeking a form of local government, including some form of federalism, with local parliament and security, saying Bamako neglected their region for decades.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is also under pressure over security and faces criticism from southerners unwilling to give concessions to rebels who they blame for a crisis when Islamist militants swept the north.