OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Separatist rebels in northern Mali announced late Saturday they are returning to a peace agreement with the government about a week after they accused Malian officials of failing to live up to their end of the deal aimed at reunifying the country.
The announcement came just days after Malian authorities released nearly two dozen prisoners, fulfilling a key rebel demand under the June accord. The rebels' decision to rejoin peace talks also was made public following negotiations with Burkina Faso's president, who has served as mediator in the dispute.
The recent suspension of the peace accord signed in June had raised fears of renewed violence in the north, and already volleys of gunfire had erupted last Sunday and Monday in Kidal town between the rebels and Malian soldiers.
Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, vice president of the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad or NMLA, said the decision to resume participation in the agreement was made "otherwise we were headed toward chaos."
A statement issued by the NMLA and two other groups that had temporarily withdrawn from the peace accord late Saturday said that they wanted to "maintain peace and security across the entire Malian territory, particularly in Azawad," the name separatists give to their homeland.
Albert Koenders, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, welcomed the rebels' decision.
"The conditions for the resumption of talks have now been met. The release of detainees by the Malian government and the NMLA in particular have allowed by the progressive reestablishment of confidence between the parties," he said.
In June, the rebels signed an agreement mediated by the president of Burkina Faso, agreeing to a cease-fire in order to allow Mali's presidential election to go ahead on July 28. The rebels also agreed to garrison their fighters, but the insurgents were frequently spotted outside their assigned bases in the northern province of Kidal.
As part of the deal, talks were to begin later this year between the government of Mali's new leader, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and the NMLA rebels.
Ethnic Tuareg rebels have sought sovereignty since Mali's independence from France in 1960, and their latest rebellion last year marked their biggest inroads yet. Anger over the Malian military's handling of the Tuareg separatist rebellion, which led to heavy soldier casualties, prompted the March 2012 coup in the distant capital.
The Tuaregs, though, were later sidelined by radical al-Qaida-linked jihadists. Since a French-led military intervention forced the extremists from power, the NMLA has again regained its prominence in Kidal. Even after the Malian military seized back the northern towns of Timbuktu and Gao, it took the June 18 agreement for the soldiers to be allowed back into Kidal.
Even now, the separatist flag still flies there, and the Malian military's presence remains highly controversial.
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.