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Price: French president says Mali rebels will not mar July elections

- - Wednesday, June 12, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

French President Francois Hollande last week expressed confidence that Mali's elections will be held in July despite the West African nation's shaky security.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which controls Mali's northern town of Kidal, has not agreed to a cease-fire ahead of the July 28 elections. The Tuareg and Arab populations in the north want independence from the government, which is based in the southern, black-majority region.

Malians are concerned that the National Reconciliation Commission lacks progress. Negotiations with the MNLA are in jeopardy as they push for independence in northern Mali.

For a reconciliation, "the only option for the MNLA is a cease-fire and laying down their arms," a condition imposed by interim President Dioncounda Traore. Several weeks ago, Mr. Traore attempted to visit Kidal to speak with citizens, but MNLA Tuareg rebels did not allow him to enter the town.

Yeah Samake, the mayor of Ouelessebougo, and a presidential candidate, told me that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visited Bamako, the capital, last week and "expressed shock to see how much progress was made in the preparation for the elections."

Mr. Samake also said the logistics for the election are on schedule, with the preparation of voter lists, ballots, ID cards and a biometric voting system, as well as the organizing of the 25,000 precincts and training people for the counting, monitoring and reporting process.

"The elections will be as free, fair and transparent as possible," he said.

The ballot's 12 candidates include Mr. Samake and Dramane Dembele, a 46-year-old mining engineer from Mr. Traore's Adema-PASJ party.

On June 3, the Malian government accused the MNLA in Kidal of targeted attacks against non-Tuaregs — basically, ethnic black Malians — and committing atrocities against them. Mali's army is 60 miles away and anticipates retaking Kidal before the presidential elections in July.

When French troops liberated Mali's northern towns this year, they allowed the MNLA to help drive the Islamist extremists from Kidal — their previous stronghold — but excluded the Malian military from participating in the action.

The MNLA told the French that they feared retribution by Malian soldiers for their part in the January 2012 attack on the Aguelhok military base near Kidal, where almost 100 soldiers were butchered.

France has come under criticism for allowing the MNLA to retain control over this key desert town. Now French troops are embedded with Malian soldiers to ensure no such punishment occurs as they move into Kidal.

"It is unfortunate that the MNLA would commit ethnic cleansing against fellow Malians, based on the color of their skin. I vigorously condemn this ethnic purging, and demand that the MNLA lay down their arms and participate in the negotiation process," Mr. Samake said.

He hopes the mediation process, orchestrated by Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, resolves their differences.

Malian leaders have placed as a primary condition that the MNLA lay down its arms. The MNLA has listed several deal-breaker conditions: the withdrawal of the Malian army from the Azawad region, which encompasses the towns of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal; a U.N. recognition of Azawad's special status; the release of all prisoners in Azawad; and full autonomy.

"If negotiations fail, the MNLA will lose, since the Malian army has been trained and re-armed. Today, they are stronger than before the MNLA joined with the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists last year," Mr. Samake said.

France has promised to keep several thousand troops before the elections. The United Nations has provided 6,000 peacekeepers to assist with security.

Reconciliation with the Tuareg separatists is paramount if Mali's next government is to succeed.

In addition, the Malian diaspora, living in refugee camps in neighboring countries, must be included in the election process — or the outcome will be less than fair and representative of all the country's ethnic groups.

John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of "When the White House Calls," and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.