France urges Mali's Tuareg rebels to disarm 'in due time'
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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said during his visit to Mali on Friday that Tuareg rebels within the MNLA must disarm "when the time comes". He also reassured Mali that France was not planning an "overnight" withdrawal of its troops.
Tuareg separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) should "in time" accept being confined and giving up their arms, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said during a visit to the Malian capital Bamako on Friday.
"When the time comes every group, the MNLA as much as any other armed group, will have to accept being confined (to cantonments) and giving up its arms," Fabius told a press conference.
The minister also reassured Mali that France was not planning an "overnight" withdrawal of the troops it sent to liberate the west African nation's north from Al-Qaeda-linked rebels.
France sent 4,000 troops to Mali in January to block an advance on Bamako from Islamist fighters, who were able to seize large parts of the north of the country in the chaos that ensued after the MNLA had ousted the Malian government from the region in its battle for independence.
The French-led intervention quickly drove out the insurgents but significant pockets of resistance remain in the Ifoghas mountains as well as in the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu.
France has announced it will begin the withdrawal of its troops from Mali in late April, with its deployment halving by late July.
However, a UN peacekeeping force of more than 11,000 troops is expected to arrive in the country at around the same time, while France also intends to keep a residual force of around 1,000 soldiers in its former colony until the end of the year.
"I'll tell my partners that we will not go overnight," Fabius told reporters.
He said the other objective of his visit was to encourage Mali's politicians to begin the process of reconciliation by holding elections in a country which remains riven by ethnic tension.
Fabius said the "policy decisions had already been taken" for a July poll which would begin the process of reconciliation.
"Technically and politically it is feasible" to have "a legally elected president in July", he added.
However, many analysts remain skeptical as to the feasibility of holding an election within such a short time frame, with the country still relatively unstable and the population deeply divided along ethnic, religious and political lines.
"The French may have liberated northern Mali from jihadist control, but it's still a very divided, multi-ethnic country," said FRANCE 24's international affairs editor Leela Jacinto.
"We're already seen cases of a backlash against the Tuareg community because many Malians blame the Tuareg and the group MNLA in particular for sparking the crisis by declaring the independence of the north, which of course slipped into jihadist control."
"Any attempt at reconciliation must involve all the various groups within Mali to be successful, Jacinto added. "It's critical to involve all parties in the reconciliation because in a matter of three months Mali will go to the polls in presidential and parliamentary elections – and that's a huge challenge in a divided nation."
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
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