By Patrick Markey
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Peace talks between Mali and Tuareg-led separatist rebels are in the last stage with both sides preparing to work on questions of identity and local authority for the northern region, the United Nations mission chief said in an interview.
A fifth round of negotiations sponsored by Algeria is scheduled to start on Monday in Algiers, seeking to end decades of uprisings by the north over the political status and form of self-rule for the area Tuaregs call Azawad.
Fighting on the ground has complicated talks, and after years of failed deals, analysts are cautious whether the two sides can reach a lasting accord. Northerners accuse the southern government of neglecting their region.
"We are in the last stage of these negotiations," Mongi Hamdi, the UN special envoy for the Mali mission, told Reuters late Saturday. "It is challenging, but not impossible. It all depends how eager the protagonists are here in Algiers. I would say several weeks."
The two sides had agreed in July to a roadmap for a talks on a final agreement, but no date was set for signing a deal.
Mali says it will not discuss demands for independence or full autonomy for the north, but it is open to devolving some form of authority. Tuareg rebels say they have recognized the unity of Mali, but there has been disagreement even over the use of the name Azawad.
Hamdi, a former Tunisian foreign minister, said an initial document recognizes Mali's unity, territorial integrity and republican spirit, but also discusses development and rights for the northern region.
"Other elements will be negotiated," he said. "What degree they will give them identity, to what degree will they allow them to use their own language, their own schools, their own security arrangements, their own implementation of regional projects, all of these will be negotiated."
Talks in Algiers have been hampered by intensified clashes between Tuareg-led rebels from the MNLA and MAA movements, and pro-government militias. MNLA fighters also clashed with U.N. peacekeepers last month.
Three groups - the Tuareg MNLA and High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), as well as the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) - have unified their positions. But there are divisions among factions as well as distrust over Bamako-allied militias.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected partly for taking a tough position against northern uprisings. But he is under pressure over the army's performance and from southerners unhappy with yielding too much to rebels who they blame for the country's 2012-2013 crisis.
Hamdi said Bamako and the rebels were working on a joint communique to declare all parties fully committed to halting hostilities as a way to ease tensions before negotiations begin on Monday. But talks would go ahead nevertheless.
"Over the past several weeks there have been plenty of violations of the ceasefire," he said. "Everyone agrees there is need to stop hostilities so to allow the Algerian talks to begin in an environment that is conducive."
France, Mali's former colonial ruler, and other Western governments are pushing for a Mali agreement, fearing the North will become a haven for Islamist extremists, especially with neighboring Libya caught up in fighting.
U.N. peacekeepers are deployed to help the Bamako government secure desert zones that were occupied by a mix of rebels and al Qaeda-linked Islamists in 2012 until a French military intervention two years ago.
(Reporting by Patrick Markey; Editing by Stephen Powell)