TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) — A group of election workers, who were kidnapped over the weekend in northern Mali's troubled Kidal region where they had gone to distribute voter ID cards, were released Sunday, officials said.
The incident comes a week before Mali is rushing ahead with a July 28 presidential election, despite concerns over the lack of government control in the province of Kidal, which remains largely the turf of Tuareg separatists. The rebels known as the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, reluctantly signed an accord last month, renouncing their claim to independence and agreeing to allow government administrators to return ahead of the election.
"The hostages were found not far from Tessalit," said Kidal's Governor Col. Adama Kamissoko. One of the hostages was able to use his mobile phone to call the French forces stationed nearby, who are called Serval, he said. "Serval was able to locate them, and then put pressure on the NMLA in order to find the hostages. This morning Serval went and brought the hostages and handed them over."
The election workers, who numbered at least five people including four election workers and the deputy mayor of Tessalit, were driven to Camp Amachache, a military camp located 7 kilometers (4 miles) outside Tessalit, which is the base of Chadian forces with the United Nations peacekeeping mission.
Officials differed on how many people had been kidnapped, with the governor saying a total of five, while the ministry of territorial administration originally said six were taken.
The kidnapping is one more worrying sign for the upcoming presidential election. One of the 28 candidates in the race, opposition politician Tiebile Drame who came in third in the last election six years ago, dropped out last week, arguing that the election risks worsening Mali's crisis.
In the spring of 2012, Tuareg rebels swept across northern Mali, seizing the major towns, and briefly declaring the birth of their Tuareg nation, only to be overpowered by al-Qaida's army in the region, which pushed out the separatists and set out to create an Islamic emirate in the France-sized territory they had seized.
The rebel invasion in the north came at the same time as a military coup in the country's government-held south in March. The international community has been pushing Mali to hold the upcoming vote in order to install legitimate leaders, who can negotiate a lasting peace in the north. At Mali's request, France sent over 4,000 troops in January to help liberate the rebel-held areas. They succeeded in flushing out the fighters in all except the region of Kidal, which seven days before the scheduled presidential election still has the flag of Azawad, the Tuareg nation, fluttering from flagpoles in the city center.