By Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Diplomats arrived in northern Mali's Kidal by helicopter on Tuesday for talks aimed at salvaging a peace process one day after rebels rejected a U.N.-brokered deal.
Rebels and northern community leaders said on Monday the a proposed deal, which took months to thrash out and had already been signed by the government based in the southern capital of Bamako, did not go far enough in meeting their demands for autonomy.
A collapse in peace talks could leave open the question of north Mali's political status indefinitely, a factor that may be exploited by Islamist militants active in the region.
Hundreds of residents marched in the Tuareg stronghold on Tuesday carrying banners saying "We won't sign" and waving flags for a region they call Azawad, witnesses said.
"This decision is entirely theirs," Pierre Buyoya, high representative of the African Union for Mali and the Sahel, told Radio France Internationale in Kidal. "Our mission is to encourage them to take the right decision which is to sign."
U.N. and other mediators are also attending the meeting, said a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Mali, MINUSMA.
The proposed deal aims to end decades of insurgency by Tuareg rebels.
They last rose up in 2012 and briefly allied themselves with Islamist militants to seize the desert north. A French-led military intervention scattered the Islamists but the political status of the north has remained unresolved.
MNLA, a group of secular Tuareg rebels in the wider Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), said it rejected the proposal because it "did not take into account the legitimate aspirations of the people of Azawad".
"It will be difficult (to sign) for all of the reasons we have already explained," said MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, reached by telephone from Kidal on Tuesday.
A diplomat representing France said that sanctions such as travel bans might be considered against rebels if they do not sign.
The U.N. Security Council said in February that targeted measures might be considered against those "who resume hostilities and violate the ceasefire".
One diplomat based in West Africa said: "We are locked in a game of brinkmanship. Sanctions are unlikely to be perceived as a heavy threat."
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and; David Lewis and Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)