Ouagadougou - The nation of Mali, which lost half its territory last year to rebels, signed an accord Tuesday with Tuareg separatists who still control the country's northernmost province, paving the way for the Malian military to return to the areas still under rebel rule.
The agreement, which was signed in front of reporters by two Tuareg representatives and an emissary of the Malian government in Ouagadougou, where the two sides have been holding talks, calls for a cease-fire to go into effect immediately.
A draft of the agreement seen by The Associated Press also states that a commission will be set-up which will include four members each from the rebel group and from the Malian security forces, and another six members from the international actors currently engaged in resolving the Malian conflict.
The commission will have 10 days from the signing of the accord to decide on how the rebels will be disarmed and how they will be transferred to a site where they can be garrisoned, and the steps that will be taken to allow Mali's military to return to the occupied area.
Mali's security forces will return to Kidal, the capital of the occupied province in northern Mali, which has become a de facto Tuareg state, before the July 28 presidential election, according to the agreement. The deployment will start with a unit of gendarmes and police, following by a progressive deployment of Mali's military, in close collaboration with African and United Nations forces.
Malian politician Tiebile Drame, the representative of the Malian government at the signing, said that they have overcome their greatest differences.
"I think we can say that the biggest task is finished. We have agreed on the essentials. There is an international consensus as well as a Malian consensus on the fundamental questions, which include the integrity of our territory, national unity, and the secular and republican nature of our state," he said.
According to Drame, the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, had agreed that Mali would exercise its sovereignty "over every centimeter of its territory" and that the Malian military will be allowed to return to Kidal.
Moussa Ag Attaher, a spokesperson for the NMLA said that the Tuareg separatists are on board: "The NMLA and the High Council for the Azawad have given everything for peace and so we accept this accord."
It's unclear how quickly Mali's army will be allowed to return to Kidal and whether a significant contingent will be in place before the upcoming election. The talks had reached an impasse last week over a number of issues including the speed of the army's deployment, and whether or not rebels who committed atrocities during the invasion would face trial.
The traditionally nomadic Tuareg people, who consider northern Mali their hereditary homeland, have long agitated for their own nation. To that end, Tuareg rebels have picked up arms against the state numerous times going back to the 1960s.
The NMLA, founded in late 2011, is the most recent movement claiming greater autonomy for Mali's Tuaregs. They began inching into northern Mali in early 2012, taking a string of small towns and villages.
After an unexpected coup in Mali's distant capital of Bamako in March of 2012, they took advantage of the ensuing chaos to push into the major cities in the north, taking Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao in the seizure of what amounted to a France-sized territory.
But on their coattails came a trio of rebel groups allied with al-Qaeda, and within weeks the jihadists had yanked down the NMLA flags and replaced it with their own dark symbol, proclaiming that the only God is Allah.
The Islamic extremists set to work creating their own Islamic state, imposing Shariah rule, flogging women for dressing immodestly, shuttering bars and discotheques, and banning music and soccer.
In punishments that shocked the normally moderate Islamic nation, they amputated the hands of over a dozen thieves, sentenced to death one accused murderer who was publicly shot and stoned to death an adulterous couple.
In January, France scrambled fighter jets over Mali in order to beat the Islamic radicals back, flushing out the extremists from the three major towns in the north. While the Malian army was quickly able to return to Timbuktu and Gao, they did not immediately return to Kidal, a Tuareg stronghold.
The French are accused of standing by and allowing the NMLA to re-enter Kidal, where they quickly established a shadow administration.
As the Malian military advanced on Kidal last month, many feared a clash. The hastily-convened talks in Ouagadougou aimed to avoid a direct confrontation.