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Polling officials kidnapped in northern Mali

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-07-21

Six people, including five polling staff and a local official, were kidnapped by gunmen in northern Mali on Saturday, local government sources said. The abduction comes a week before a presidential poll meant to restore the country's unity.

Gunmen abducted five polling staff and a local official Saturday in the northern Malian town of Tessalit, a week before a presidential election meant to restore the country’s unity, a local official said.

Tensions ahead of presidential elections in Mali

The poll workers and an elected Tessalit official, all of them Malian, were snatched by unidentified “gunmen”, an official in the Kidal governor’s office told AFP.

Two of the polling agents were freed overnight, an official at the ministry for territorial administration said on Sunday, but he had no information about the circumstances of their release.

First reports had spoken of four electoral staff and an official, but an inquiry showed that five agents and the deputy mayor of Kidal had been seized.

The official said the six hostages had been at the town hall in Tessalit, a remote town some 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of the flashpoint northern city of Kidal, to plan the distribution of ID cards to registered voters when they were kidnapped.

“The governor is currently in an emergency meeting in Kidal to see what needs to be done. We have not yet had any news on the abductees,” he said.

An African military source in Kidal, where four people were killed in pre-election violence Thursday, confirmed receiving information about a kidnapping involving polling staff and an elected official, but did not specify the number of victims.

A Malian security ministry official said the kidnapping appeared to be the work of the minority-Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Mali’s government accused northern Tuareg separatists on Saturday of violating a ceasefire deal signed last month after 4 people were killed in ethnic violence in the northern town of Kidal, a week ahead of elections.

Shops were looted and vehicles burned in two days of clashes between pro-separatist Tuareg youths and black Africans in the desert town.

The violence raised fears about disruptions to the July 28 presidential election, pushed for by France and Western donors and meant to draw a line under a March 2012 coup that led to a 10-month seizure of northern Mali by al Qaeda-linked rebels.

(REUTERS)

“Everything indicates this is an attack by the MNLA, which doesn’t want there to be an election,” the official said.

The MNLA took control of Kidal in February after a French-led military intervention ousted Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters who had seized control of most of northern Mali.

The Malian authorities finally reclaimed the city after signing a deal with the MNLA and another Tuareg group on June 18 aimed at reuniting the country and clearing the way for elections to restore democratic rule.

Under the deal, MNLA forces moved into barracks as 150 regular Malian troops were deployed to secure Kidal ahead of the July 28 vote.

The kidnappings come after violence between Tuaregs and Mali’s majority black population rocked Kidal on Thursday and Friday.

Officials said armed men went on a rampage Thursday, looting and ransacking shops and businesses, killing four people and wounding many others.

On Friday, unidentified arsonists set fire to the city’s central market.

Many Malians accuse the light-skinned Tuaregs of being responsible for the chaotic sequence that saw the country split in two for nine months—with the northern half ruled by groups that imposed an extreme form of Islamic law—and shattered what had been considered a democratic success story in the restive region.

When the MNLA launched their offensive in January 2012, they humiliated the Malian army by seizing a string of northern towns.

Mid-level army officers angry over the losses then overthrew president Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012, blaming him for the army’s weak response.

The coup unleashed a crisis that saw the Tuareg separatists seize Mali’s vast desert north along with a trio of Islamist groups that then proceeded to chase out their former allies the MNLA and impose brutal sharia rule on their territory, until the French-led intervention forced them out.

Mali has since been battling to restore a measure of stability.

The decision to hold the first round of the presidential election on July 28, followed by a second round on August 11 if necessary, was taken by the Malian government under pressure from the international community.

But the presence of the Malian army has stoked tensions in the powder-keg town of Kidal, with pro- and anti-government protests a regular occurrence and several troops injured by demonstrators.

Many observers and some Malian officials have suggested the election is being held too soon and that the interim administration needs more time to organise a credible poll.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-07-20

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