Mali's government and Tuareg-led rebels on Thursday signed an agreement for a roadmap toward securing a broader peace deal to end decades of uprisings in the north.
Mali's vast northern desert region - called Azawad by the Tuareg rebels - has risen up four times in the last 50 years, with various groups fighting for independence or self-rule. The roadmap calls for negotiations to work out "questions of substance" between Aug. 17 and Sept. 11 before a second round in October to discuss areas such as security, reconciliation and humanitarian issues. A final peace agreement will be signed in Mali, but Thursday's accord gives no date for that last step.
"I hope this will lead us to a lasting peace. You have our guarantee that we will meet our commitments," Mali Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said, speaking to rebel groups after the signing ceremony in Algiers.
Alghabass Ag Intalla, a negotiator for the High Council of the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) called for international committee to support the next round of negotiations.
"This roadmap will allow us to move to deeper talks," he said, speaking on behalf of two other rebel groups.
Unrest in the West African country continues even after troops from its former colonial ruler France intervened last year to drive back Islamists who had taken advantage of the latest Tuareg-led rebellion.
Even as negotiations progressed, however, there were signs of distrust with the main Tuareg separatist group accusing the Malian army of backing local militias fighting them east of Timbuktu.
"The problem is that the army has effectively been fighting us at the same time as they have been negotiating," a spokesman for the MNLA group told Reuters.
Mali's government has said it has ruled out any independence or full autonomy for the northern region, but is open to negotiations over devolving more authority over local affairs to the region.
Tuareg and Arab rebel groups in the north have long accused governments in the south of neglecting their region.
Three main rebel groups - the Tuareg MNLA, High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) - have sought to unify their positions. But divisions persist within the different Tuareg factions as well as between Tuareg and Arab separatist groups.
The Algiers negotiations began just days after more than 30 people were killed in desert clashes in Mali. The government said it was fighting among rival rebel groups, but the MNLA said the dead were from the Malian army and allied militias.
Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected last year partly for his reputation for taking a firm stand against previous uprisings. He is under pressure from the more densely populated south not to give in to rebel demands.