GAO (Reuters) - Armed groups in northern Mali have agreed on the return of interim authorities to towns there next week, a government statement said, overcoming a stumbling block in the implementation of a 2015 peace deal.
Most government posts in northern Mali have been empty since desert jihadists usurped them in 2012 before being chased out themselves by a French military intervention.
However, an attempt by authorities from the southern capital Bamako to visit the Tuareg rebel bastion of Kidal in 2014 led to heavy fighting between the army and local fighters who were formerly allied with the jihadists. The army had to retreat.
The government statement said the agreement between rival armed groups with the government was reached on Friday and that the interim authorities would be instated in Kidal on Feb. 28 followed by Gao on March 2 and Timbuktu on March 3.
The agreement ends months of squabbling between pro and anti-government Tuareg-dominated armed groups in the north as well as the Bamako-based government over the composure of the authorities, foreseen by a U.N.-brokered July 2015 peace deal.
They are expected to remain in place until regional elections and are set to oversee disarmament and the return of fighters to barracks.
"We will not let the terrorists succeed. Your common actions are now bearing fruit," said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who oversaw the 2013 French intervention, in a speech during a visit to Gao on Saturday.
Mali's former colonial master has sent troops to Mali and neighbouring Sahel states in the aftermath of the intervention to pursue jihadists who have stepped up attacks in recent months and spread further south into neighbouring Burkina Faso.
In another sign of progress, Malian soldiers staged their first joint patrol on Thursday with rival armed groups in the town of Gao, where Islamist militants killed more than 77 people last month in the deadliest such attack in the country's history.
(Reporting by Souleymane Ag Anara and Adama Diarra, Writing by Emma Farge, Editing by Angus MacSwan)