BAMAKO (Reuters) - Demonstrators protesting against a peace deal between Mali’s government and separatists hurled stones at U.N. peacekeepers in a northern rebel stronghold on Friday, hours before it was due to be signed, witnesses said.
Meanwhile, fighting continued around a northeastern town that has been a flashpoint in weeks of clashes that threaten to undermine the peace accord.
The Tuareg-led rebels had on Thursday given their initial approval to the deal, which aims to end decades of northern uprisings, but said they wanted more guarantees before signing a final accord.
Several northern factions have said they will not participate in Friday’s signing ceremony in the capital Bamako, which mediators and foreign leaders are expected to attend. It was unclear which factions might still attend.
Hundreds of demonstrators marched through the northern town of Kidal carrying banners and chanting slogans including “Better martyrdom than humiliation”, before arriving at a camp housing peacekeepers and police from Mali’s U.N. mission, MINUSMA.
“MINUSMA isn’t there for peace. They are there to support the Malian government,” Mohamedine Aichata Walet, one of the protesters, told Reuters.
Mali’s government accepted the U.N. and Algerian-backed deal earlier this year. Diplomats want an agreement that would allow Malian and international forces to concentrate on tackling al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters roaming the country’s lawless desert region.
A coalition of Tuareg and Arab rebel groups says it falls short of their demands for the northern region, which they call Azawad.
Mahmoud Ag Ghali, acting secretary-general of the Coordination of Movements for Azawad (CMA), said the coalition had given the deal initial approval on the understanding negotiations would continue.
“What is certain is that, no matter what, we will never sign unless our amendments are taken into account,” he told Reuters on Thursday.
A Malian military source and leader of the Gatia pro-government militia said there were clashes near the town of Menaka on Friday.
“We knew they would attack today. As I‘m speaking to you, the fighting is under way,” Fahad Ag Almahamoud, the militia’s secretary-general, told Reuters.
CMA representatives were not immediately reachable for comment.
During the most recent northern uprising in 2012, separatists joined forces with Islamist militants to briefly seize control of the northern two-thirds of the country before a French-led military intervention rolled them back.
Writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Andrew Roche