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Mali's Tuareg rebels down weapons

17 February 09 16:19 GMT

Hundreds of former Tuareg insurgents have surrendered their arms at a ceremony in Mali to mark their official return to the peace process.

Some 700 ex-rebels, who can now join the regular army, were at the airport event in the north-east town of Kidal.

Fighters from a group led by key rebel leader Ibrahim Ag Bahanga participated in the ceremony.

But Mr Bahanga, an opponent of the 2006 Algiers peace deal, was not present - he has fled the country.

Mali's Territorial Administration Minister Gen Kafougouna Kone attended, as did Algeria's ambassador to Mali, who has been the chief negotiator in the peace process.

The indigenous, nomadic Tuareg have been fighting for a greater political role and more economic development in their desert region.

Mali's government has promised to invest in areas inhabited by the Tuareg nomads if they give up their demands for regional autonomy.

'Real issues'

The governor of Kidal region, Alhamdou Ag Ilyene, said that now the former combatants had given up rebellion the real issues facing his region could be tackled.

It is expected the ex-rebels will either be integrated into the Malian defence forces or the government will try to find them other work to help them settle back into civilian life.

The military launched an offensive in early January against the insurgents in the north-east of the country.

Earlier this month Mali said its army had taken control of all the bases of Mr Bahanga's rebel group.

The defence ministry also said Mr Bahanga had fled, but his rebel group denied the claims.

The BBC's Martin Vogl in Mali's capital, Bamako, says the problem for the government is that the most active rebel leader, responsible for some of the deadliest recent attacks, is still out in the desert.

The Malian army is trying to hunt down Mr Bahanga and for the moment seem to have him on the run.

But our correspondent says the rebel leader may be just biding his time and there is always the risk he could strike again when the Malian army lest expects it.

The Tuaregs, a historically nomadic people living in the Sahara and Sahel regions of North Africa, have had militant groups in Mali and Niger engaged in sporadic armed struggles for several decades.

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