By Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali has lifted its state of emergency to allow campaigning for a presidential election being held on July 28 after a French-led offensive to drive Islamist militants from the West African country.
But attacks on U.N. peacekeepers in a former rebel stronghold on Saturday underlined the continuing insecurity in the Sahara Desert north.
The state of emergency, imposed when the French offensive began in January, was lifted at midnight (0000 GMT), army spokesman Captain Modibo Naman Traore said.
The emergency measure had given sweeping powers to the army and banned gatherings of more than 50 people.
"The military situation has now stabilized. Lifting the state of emergency will allow the candidates in the presidential election to campaign," Traore said.
Some 28 candidates, including four former prime ministers, are standing in the election.
Experts and some Malian officials have expressed concern about holding the ballot so soon, saying the administration has been badly damaged, particularly in northern regions that were occupied by Islamists for 10 months. There are also concerns that hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the fighting might be unable to vote.
But diplomats say Western nations led by former colonial ruler France and the United States are pushing for the election date to be maintained because the interim administration is unable to tackle Mali's problems.
One presidential candidate, former government peace negotiator Tiebile Drame, has called for a delay, warning that Mali is not ready and it could be heading towards chaos.
Drame pointed to continuing instability in Kidal, stronghold of the Tuareg separatists whose rebellion was hijacked by the Islamists. Mali signed a ceasefire with the Tuareg in June.
Two checkpoints manned by U.N. peacekeepers were attacked by unknown gunmen on Saturday, a spokesman for the U.N. force said. The U.N. force had repelled the simultaneous attacks, MINUSMA spokesman Olivier Salgado said.
Malian forces entered Kidal on Friday.
(Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)