An alliance of Tuareg-led rebels and the Malian government signed a peace deal on Saturday meant to draw a line under a 2012 uprising and allow the authorities to focus on tackling Islamist militants in the desert north.
The Algerian-brokered deal, signed by a representative of the rebel Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA), grants greater autonomy to sparsely populated northern Mali in a bid to end a cycle of four uprisings since independence from France in 1960.
The Algiers Accord had been signed in May by a coalition of loyalist armed groups but the CMA held out for concessions on the return of refugees, security arrangements and development plans for the region.
These were agreed with the government this month.
A French-led military campaign in early 2013 liberated northern Mali from al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels, who seized control of it after the Tuareg uprising sparked a military coup that plunged Mali into chaos.
However, the north remains prey to attacks by jihadist groups, and some 140,000 Malians remain abroad as refugees.
“Hand in hand, let us make Mali better, more brotherly, more united than ever,” President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, elected after a transition back to democracy, told the ceremony. “Long live a reconciled Mali! Long live peace!”
Previous deals with northern rebels have failed to secure a lasting peace. The light-skinned Tuareg and Arab peoples of northern Mali say they have been marginalised by successive black African governments in the southern capital, Bamako.
The application of this accord will be complicated by the division of fighters into competing splinter groups. Analysts say some northern factions vie for control of smuggling routes to north Africa.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Cairo that the deal differed from previous pacts because it would be monitored by the international community, including France.
The deal has, however, left the issue of Azawad’s political identity for a national debate between Malian parties.
The government has said it is prepared to devolve more authority under Mali’s existing decentralised structure, but rejects demands for full autonomy within a federal system.
CMA representative Mahamadou Djeri Maiga told the ceremony: “We are placing a lot of hope in the assurances of IBK (the president) and our international partners.”
Malian authorities said Algeria would head an independent commission charged with monitoring the deal.
The Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General for Mali, Mongi Hamdi, said the 11,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) would also support the deal’s implementation.
With violence still simmering in the north, MINUSMA has suffered 49 fatalities since its deployment in 2013, according to its website.