BAMAKO (AFP) – Malian troops entered the rebel-held northeastern town of Kidal on Friday, the army said, to secure it for a presidential election due across the west African country on July 28.
Kidal, a town prized by ethnic Tuaregs, has been occupied by the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) since the end of January but the rebels agreed as part of a ceasefire deal last month to allow in troops ahead of the polls.
"As I speak, our army is entering Kidal. This is a peaceful, coordinated arrival -- everything is going well. There are more than 150 Malian soldiers," military spokesman Souleymane Maiga told AFP.
The occupation of Kidal by the MNLA has been a major obstacle to organising the presidential election, seen as crucial to Mali's recovery from the conflict of the past 16 months.
Malian military officers staged a coup in March last year after being overpowered by an MNLA rebellion. The Tuaregs seized key northern cities before being sidelined by their Al Qaeda-linked allies who imposed their harsh version of sharia law in towns under their control.
The Malian army in January received help from a French-led military intervention to fight the Islamists but pulled back out into the desert.
The French then let the MNLA back into Kidal, raising fears in Bamako, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) to the southwest, that Paris wants to let the Tuareg rebels keep the town as part of an eventual deal for self-rule for the northern desert territory they call Azawad.
"The location of the rebels' camp is known. We expect them to respect the agreements signed," Maiga said.
An African military source confirmed the Malian army's arrival in the town, saying "everything is going as planned".
While Kidal was seen as a major stumbling block, analysts and politicians have also raised concerns that it will be almost impossible to distribute nearly eight million polling cards in a country where 500,000 people have been displaced by conflict.
The International Crisis Group think tank and leading politicians have called for the polls to be delayed but the government, which called the election under pressure from the international community, has insisted they will go ahead as planned.
The European Union has begun deploying observers in Mali ahead of the elections, appointing former Belgian foreign minister and ex EU development commissioner Louis Michel, now a member of the European Parliament, to head the team.
"This election observation mission is a further stage in our efforts to assist Mali on the road to stability," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
"The elections mark another crucial step towards the restoration of the constitutional order and the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Mali."
A core team of nine EU election analysts were sent to Mali late June and were joined by 20 long-term observers this week.
A further 30 short-term observers from EU member states will arrive one week before voting.