Mali’s Tuareg rebels have agreed to a ceasefire, two days after clashes with the army threatened to throw the country back into chaos.
Three Tuareg rebel groups occupying the key northern town of Kidal signed the agreement after talks with African Union chairman Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz.
Some 20 Malian soldiers have died since Wednesday in fighting over who holds the town.
The separatists have gained control of much of northern Mali in recent days.
Tuareg rebels have agreed to a ceasefire, two days after clashes with the army threatened to throw Mali back into chaos
In 2012 a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali triggered a military coup in the capital, Bamako and an Islamist takeover of the north.
Civilian rule was re-established in 2013, but Islamist and separatist forces remain active in some areas.
Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, the president of Mauritania, flew to Kidal on Friday to meet rebel groups including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
Minister for Internal Security General Sada Samake signed the ceasefire on behalf of the Malian government at 21:30 GMT on Friday.
The ceasefire agreement includes a pledge to revive talks and the release of 300 Tuareg prisoners held in the capital.
Violence broke out in Kidal on Saturday when Malian PM Moussa Mara visited the town to show support for government forces based there.
The rebels seized government buildings, killed at least eight civilians and took around 30 hostages, who were later released.
The separatists said they defeated government forces the town on Wednesday.
MNLA fighters have also taken control of several other towns in the north, including Menaka, Agelhok, Anefis and Tessalit. They said earlier on Friday that they were close to the key city of Gao.
The government has accused the Tuaregs of being backed by al-Qaeda militants, and called for an immediate ceasefire.
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Polls open across Mali for a presidential election aimed at reuniting the country after months of political turmoil.
Security is tight, with many areas still recovering after a northern rebellion and coup that resulted in foreign military intervention.
There are 27 candidates and if no outright winner emerges, the voting goes to a second round on August 11.
However, some analysts have questioned whether Mali is ready for the election.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the north were displaced by fighting. The majority of them will not be able to vote.
Islamist militants in the north have also warned Muslims not to take part and have threatened to attack polling stations.
There are also concerns about the fairness of the electoral process in the northern town of Kidal, which is still occupied by Tuareg rebels.
Polls open across Mali for a presidential election aimed at reuniting the country after months of political turmoil
Tuareg gunmen were suspected of abducting electoral officials in the northern Tessalit area last week as they handed out voter identification cards. The officials were later released.
French troops are still deployed in the area with Chadian forces as part of the UN stabilization force, Minusma.
Despite the problems, Louis Michel, head of the EU’s election observer mission, said he was “positively surprised” by preparations for the vote and that the conditions were acceptable.
The US ambassador to Bamako, Mary Beth Leonard, said the fragility of Mali’s interim government had to end.
“A month ago, there were a lot of doubts [over the election]. But it has come together,” Mary Beth Leonard said.
Candidates include three former prime ministers, a former finance minister and one woman.
The frontrunners include Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, prime minister from 1994 to 2000, who founded his own party, the Rally for Mali (RPM), in 2001.
At his final rally in the capital Bamako on Friday, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita – known as IBK – appealed for a calm election day and vowed to ensure that “no-one will make fun of Mali again”.
IBK’s biggest rival is seen as Soumaila Cisse, who founded his own party, the Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD), in 2003.
Soumaila Cisse has called for the junta that seized power in 2012 to be cleared from the political scene.
Observers say Soumana Sacko, another former prime minister, can expect a good showing if there is no clear winner.
French-led troops in Mali have taken control of the northern town of Gao, France’s defence ministry has said.
Town of Gao was previously a stronghold of Islamist fighters after it was seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamists last April.
French-led troops moved into Gao itself after earlier securing the airport and a strategic bridge to the south.
French officials said troops from neighboring Niger and Chad would now move into the town to help secure it.
They also suggested that government control was already being restored, with the mayor of Gao’s returning on Saturday after being ousted by the Islamist takeover.
There was no official death toll from the offensive, but the French army said “dozens” of Islamist fighters were killed in the overnight operations, without any casualties on the French and Malian side.
After a punishing series of air strikes on jihadist positions in Gao, Malian and French forces took first the airport and then the bridge over the river Niger, before being able to confirm they had taken control of the whole of the town.
Malian officials spoke of scenes of joy on the streets of Gao, but also of some looting.
Gao’s mayor, who has been in the capital Bamako since the town fell to the Islamists early last year, has been flown back in.
French-led troops in Mali have taken control of the northern town of Gao
Chadian and Nigerian forces, meanwhile, are poised to pushed up from the Nigerien border – about 200 km to the south – in order to reinforce the French and Malians.
French-led troops are also reported to be advancing on the town of Lere to the west.
It all appears to confirm a picture of rolling successes for the French and Malians, as they retake the main population centres of the north, says the BBC’s Hugh Schofield in Paris.
The fall of Gao, northern Mali’s most populous town, marks a significant advance for French and Malian troops.
Islamists seized a vast area of northern Mali last year and have imposed strict Sharia, or Islamic law, on its inhabitants.
France intervened militarily on January 11 to stop them advancing further south.
It has already deployed 2,500 soldiers on the ground in Mali as well as launching air strikes.
With the capture of Gao, the French are increasingly confident of pushing the Islamists out of all the major population centres in the north, says our correspondent.
The other major northern towns of Kidal and Timbuktu remain in Islamist hands. But, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the historic town of Timbuktu – an important symbol which has also been under Islamist control for most of the last year – should also soon be retaken.
The French are confident that this phase of the campaign will soon be over, adds our correspondent, though of course the vast desert hinterland offers the Islamists endless opportunities to retreat and regroup.
The UN refugee agency says more than 7,000 civilians have fled to neighboring countries since 10 January to escape the fighting.
In a statement earlier, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that 3,700 French troops were engaged in Operation Serval, 2,500 of them on Malian soil.
Gao was one of the first rebel-held areas to be targeted by air-strikes after France decided to intervene in its former colony, a decision which took many by surprise.
A UN-backed international force had not been expected in the west African state until the autumn.
Several African countries have pledged military aid to help the Malian government win back control of the north.
On Friday the African Union asked the UN Security Council to authorize immediate logistical help to allow the 6,000-strong force to deploy quickly.
It also recommended civilian observers to monitor the human rights situation in the areas which have come back under the control of the Malian government. Human rights groups have accused the Malian army of committing serious abuses.