BAMAKO, Mali — Mali's Tuareg-led rebel alliance signed a landmark deal on Saturday to end years of unrest in a nation riven by ethnic divisions and in the grip of a jihadist insurgency.
The Algiers Accord aims to bring stability to the country's vast northern desert, cradle of several Tuareg uprisings since the 1960s and a sanctuary for Islamist fighters linked to Al-Qaeda.
The document had already been signed in May by the government and loyalist militias but the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a coalition of rebel groups, had been holding out until amendments were agreed two weeks ago.
Sidi Brahim Ould Sidati, a member of the Arab Movement of Azawad, put his name to the document in a televised ceremony in the capital Bamako on behalf of the CMA.
Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, former head of the UN peacekeeping force in Mali, and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius welcomed the CMA's commitment to the accord and urged Mali to ensure the deal was implemented.
"This responsibility lies primarily with the Malian actors and the government and armed groups must regain mutual trust — the only possibility for progress," they said in a joint op-ed in French daily Le Monde published on Friday.
"The political party leaders also have an important role to play, as well as civil society, including women and youth. In a word, reconciliation is the business of all Malians," they added.
Ramtane Lamamra, the foreign minister of Algeria, which has been leading international efforts to mediate the peace talks, attended the ceremony, along with scores of rebels.
The peace accord, hammered out over months under the auspices of the UN, calls for the creation of elected regional assemblies but stop short of autonomy or federalism for northern Mali.
The Malian government and several armed groups signed the document on May 15 in Bamako, in a ceremony spurned by the CMA.
The rebels finally agreed to commit on June 5 after winning a stipulation that its fighters be included in a security force for the north, and that residents of the region be represented better in government institutions, among other concessions.
"It is a necessary and highly anticipated step, it will help to clarify the situation on the ground. Violence has increased in recent months," said Bamako-based political commentator Souleymane Drabo.
"The situation is untenable for everyone — for the people, for the United Nations and government forces."
But Drabo, a columnist at the pro-government L'Essor daily, warned that the CMA's signature did not guarantee peace.
"In 1992, a national pact was signed here between the government and armed groups and ... fighting continued for three years after the signing," he said.
Mali was shaken by a coup in 2012 that cleared the way for Tuareg separatists to seize towns and cities of the north, an expanse of desert the size of Texas.
Al-Qaeda-linked militants then overpowered the Tuareg, taking control of northern Mali for nearly 10 months until they were ousted in a French-led military offensive.
The country remains deeply divided, with the Tuareg and Arab populations of the north accusing sub-Saharan ethnic groups in the more prosperous south of marginalizing them.
Deadliest UN mission
Loyalist militias seized the northeastern town of Menaka from the CMA in April, violating a ceasefire agreement and sparking an uptick in violence that left many dead on both sides.
The move threatened to undermine the country's already fragile and long-running peace process, but the pro-government forces later agreed to withdraw.
The Malian government has also lifted arrest warrants issued in 2013 against several CMA rebels in a further attempt to smooth the path to peace.
The MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali has suffered the largest losses among the UN's 16 missions worldwide, and is regularly targeted by militants in the north.
Its commander, Major General Michael Lollesgaard, said on Wednesday the force lacked the training, logistics and intelligence capabilities to effectively carry out operations.
Koenders and Fabius, in their Le Monde piece, urged European countries to step up their support for MINUSMA, which is made up largely of predominantly African troops.
"The crisis in Mali is indeed key to the interests of the whole of Europe, through the rise of terrorism and the amplification of the flow of migrants, and the UN mission plays an essential role in the stabilisation of Mali and, indirectly, the whole region," they said.
Since MINUSMA's deployment in 2013, 36 soldiers have died and more than 200 have been wounded, making it the deadliest mission since Somalia in the 1990s.