Mali government, Tuareg rebels swap prisoners
Tuareg rebels and the Malian government on Tuesday exchanged dozens of prisoners in a goodwill gesture on the eve of peace talks opening in Algiers.
Forty-five Malian soldiers and police captured during clashes at the end of May in the west African nation's restive northeast arrived at Bamako's airport, where they were welcomed by Prime Minister Moussa Mara.
They were replaced on the plane by 41 militants captured during patrols of the north by security forces, with the rebels due to be to returned to their homeland, known by the Tuareg as "Azawad".
"In total today the Malian government and armed groups in the north have released 86 prisoners on both sides, in the context of an easing of tension," security ministry official Aliou Toure said at the airport.
The exchange had been agreed as part of negotiations between the two sides ahead of the talks, a separate official source said on condition of anonymity.
"The Malian government has released 41 prisoners from the ranks of armed groups from the north, and they have released 45 members of the security forces of Mali. All prisoners released from both sides are healthy," the source said.
The freed Tuareg, captured during clashes in the rebel bastion of Kidal from May 17 to 21, are members of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA).
The skirmishes resulted in the deaths of 50 soldiers in a humiliating defeat for the army.
Government negotiators are due to meet the rebels on Wednesday in Algiers in a bid to strike a peace deal which has eluded the conflict-wracked country since its return to democracy last year following a military coup.
- Suicide bombing -
The talks will be the first since an interim agreement last June paved the way for nationwide elections.
Since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power negotiations have stalled, however, and northern Mali has seen a spike in violence by Islamist and separatist militants.
A ceasefire obtained by Mauritanian leader and African Union (AU) chief Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has been in place since May's clashes, but the government has continued to voice concern about the "concentrations of armed groups" in the desert.
A French legionnaire was killed on Monday in what Paris described as a suicide car bomb attack near the northern town of Gao.
The MNLA, the HCUA, and two branches of the MAA will be represented in Algiers, where a government delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop.
But Mali has excluded several Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda which occupied northern Mali for close to 10 months in 2012 before being ousted by the French-led Serval military offensive.
The talks begin with French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arriving in Bamako to sign a defence agreement with Mali, after Paris said on Sunday that it was winding up its Serval offensive after 18 months.
It will be replaced by a wider counter-terrorism operation, codenamed Barkhane, to be implemented in partnership with Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
Le Drian said around 3,000 French soldiers would be part of the operation, 1,000 of whom would stay in northern Mali.