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Mali govt, rebels swap prisoners before peace talks

16 July 2014, 10:50

Bamako - Tuareg rebels and the Malian government on Tuesday exchanged dozens of prisoners in a goodwill gesture on the eve of peace talks opening in Algiers, an AFP correspondent witnessed.

Forty-five Malian soldiers and police captured during clashes at the end of May in the west African nation's restive northeast arrived at Bamako's airport, where they were welcomed by Prime Minister Moussa Mara.

They were replaced on the plane by 41 militants captured during patrols of the north by security forces, with the rebels due to be to returned to their homeland, known by the Tuareg as "Azawad".

"In total today (Tuesday) the Malian government and armed groups in the north have released 86 prisoners on both sides, in the context of an easing of tension," security ministry official Aliou Toure told AFP.

The exchange had been agreed as part of negotiations between the two sides ahead of the talks, a separate official source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"The Malian government has released 41 prisoners from the ranks of armed groups from the north, and they have released 45 members of the security forces of Mali. All prisoners released from both sides are healthy," the source said.

The freed Tuareg, captured during clashes in the rebel bastion of Kidal from 17 to 21 May, are members of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA).

The skirmishes resulted in the deaths of 50 soldiers in an embarrassing defeat for the army. 

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