BAMAKO, Mali (AFP) – Voter registration cards went out Monday in an atmosphere of calm in the northern Malian town where election officials were briefly kidnapped Saturday, one of the freed workers told AFP.
The five poll organisers and a local official had been at the town hall in Tessalit, near the Algerian border, to plan the distribution of the cards for Mali's July 28 presidential election when they were taken by armed men.
"Today is calm in Tessalit and distribution of voter cards has begun," said Ishmael Ag Mohamed, one of six kidnapped by the gunmen, who freed the group soon after.
Mohamed told AFP they were abducted by the ethnic Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
"I recognised not only the car but also the local head of the MNLA," he said.
Sunday's polls are seen as vital to reuniting the country after a Tuareg uprising last year led to a military coup and a sweeping offensive by Islamists who captured the entire north before being flushed out by French and African troops.
Mohamed said he was optimistic that Tessalit, a desert town in the flashpoint Kidal region, birthplace of a Tuareg rebellion, could participate in the election.
An African source from the United Nations peacekeeping force in Kidal said the alleged mastermind of the kidnapping, Ag Baye Diknane, was questioned by UN and French forces but had to be released, because they had no mandate to make arrests.
The town of Kidal, 250 kilometres (155 miles) south of Tessalit, was also quiet on Monday following clashes Thursday and Friday between Tuaregs and black civilians in which four people died.
The violence and kidnappings have raised fears that the Kidal region would be too unstable to take part in the election, a prerequisite for the result to be seen as credible in deeply-divided Mali.
A delegation from the MNLA and another Tuareg group, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad, held talks Sunday with Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore, discussing possibilities for peace and reconciliation.
The talks were set to resume on Monday when both sides will evaluate a peace deal signed by the rebels and the Malian government last month.