Presidential favourite visits flashpoint town in Mali

Published July 15, 2013

| AFP

One of the favourites to win Mali's presidential elections took his campaign to the northern Tuareg rebel bastion of Kidal on Monday, several sources told AFP, with two weeks to go until voting begins.

"Presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita arrived Monday in Kidal for the election campaign," said an African source from the United Nations peacekeeping mission, while Keita's campaign chief confirmed he had spent "a few hours" in the town.

Keita, a former prime minister, is among the front-runners in the July 28 election, seen as crucial to reuniting Mali after an 18-month political crisis that saw French forces intervene to push out Islamist rebels who had seized the country's north.

Soumaila Cisse, a former president of the Commission of the West African Economic and Monetary Union, is also expected in Kidal "very soon", according to his campaign team.

Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly vowed on Saturday that the country would push ahead with a "credible and transparent" vote despite widespread scepticism about the country's ability to stage the election.

Much of the concern is focused on Kidal, which remains tense despite a peace deal with Tuareg separatists that allowed the Malian army to enter the town.

Supporters and opponents of the Malian army have staged frequent demonstrations in recent days, with at least two UN peacekeepers and a French soldier injured by stones thrown during one protest.

Most local government has been absent for more than a year since the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and allied armed factions linked to Al-Qaeda seized key towns in Mali's vast arid north.

The town's governor returned to the area on Monday, however, after initially attempting to retake his post last week but being forced to retreat back to Bamako amid tension in Kidal.

Malian military officers staged a coup in March last year after being overpowered by an MNLA rebellion that seized key northern cities before being sidelined by its Islamist allies who imposed a harsh form of sharia law in towns under their control.

A French-led intervention launched in January drove out the Islamists but the MNLA took control of Kidal, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) from the capital, which they consider the heart of the desert territory they call Azawad.

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