Two armed groups in the lawless Menaka region of central Mali signed an accord on Sunday to join forces to fight insecurity, stepping in where government and international efforts have largely failed.
The accord came the day before French President Emmanuel Macron and five African counterparts including the Malian president were to meet in Pau, in southwestern France.
Menaka, like other parts of central and northern Mali, has been beset by Islamist, inter-ethnic and criminal violence since conflict broke out in the north of the West African state in 2012.
Rivalry among armed groups has exacerbated the insecurity.
Despite a deepening humanitarian crisis, aid groups suspended operations in December after suffering repeated breaks-ins.
Sunday’s accord was signed by the Platform and the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA), two coalitions of armed groups that signed a peace accord with the Bamako government in 2015.
CMA is an alliance of mainly Tuareg former rebel groups, while the Platform is made up of pro-government armed groups.
They agreed to the “total and immediate cessation of hostile acts (and) the protection of people and their goods” in the areas under their control.
The two groups also agreed to clamp down on the circulation of weapons, to set up joint patrols and to create or reopen checkpoints.
– ‘Traditional’ judicial body –
They will set up a judicial body using “traditional conflict-management mechanisms” to bring criminals to justice. Notably, they agreed to prosecute wrongdoers from their own ranks.
They also vowed to help displaced people to return home, and pledged to provide security for aid groups that wish to resume work in the area.
In Pau on Monday, Macron was to meet with the heads of the G5 Sahel grouping which also includes Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad, all former French colonies like Mali.
Their poorly equipped, impoverished local armies launched a joint anti-jihadist force in 2017.
France for its part has 4,500 soldiers stationed in the Europe-sized region as part of Operation Barkhane, supporting the G5 Sahel force along with the 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force dubbed MINUSMA.
Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger suffered a wave of Islamist attacks in 2019 that claimed more than 4,000 lives, according to the United Nations.
More than one million people have fled their homes.
On Monday, the G5 Sahel leaders will discuss the worsening security situation and the spread of jihadism while seeking a greater role for the French military in the region.
The talks are expected to be delicate against the backdrop of anti-French sentiment on the ground, with French forces now contested by some as a foreign, even “neo-colonial”.
Jihadists have stepped up attacks on armed forces in recent months, with the Menaka area especially hard hit. Two attacks in November left 92 Malian soldiers dead.
A massive firefight on Thursday at a military camp in western Niger left 89 soldiers dead, the government said, with “77 dead for the enemy”.
The Pau meeting was postponed from December after a jihadist attack claimed the lives of 71 Niger soldiers.