Mali Bomb Blast Kills Five Chadian U.N. Peacekeepers

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Five United Nations peacekeepers from Chad were killed Thursday when their truck drove over a mine in Mali, casting a shadow over peace talks between the west African state and rebel militias.

The attacks follow the restart of negotiations between the Mali government and six armed rebel groups in the Algerian capital aimed at clinching a lasting peace agreement in the deeply-divided nation.

"We lost five comrades today in the north towards Aguelhok. Their vehicle hit an explosive device. It's terrible," said a Chadian army officer, who added that four Chadian soldiers were wounded.

The Malian army confirmed the deaths, condemning "a new provocation by terrorists" which it said had taken place as a ceremony in memory of soldiers killed by mines was underway in Aguelhok, 150 kilometers (90 miles) south of the Algerian border, in the restive Kidal region.

The incident comes just two weeks after four Chadian soldiers were killed when they hit a mine, also in Kidal.

Riven by ethnic rivalries, a Tuareg rebellion and an Islamist insurgency in its vast desert north, Mali has struggled for stability and peace since a military coup in 2012.

The Bamako government and various rebel groups, mostly Tuareg but also including Arab organizations, are seeking to resolve a decades-old conflict that created a power vacuum in the desert north that was exploited by al-Qaida.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) have launched four uprisings since 1962 to fight Mali's army over the territory they claim as their Tuareg homeland and call Azawad.

Since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power last year negotiations have stalled and northern Mali has seen a spike in violence by Islamist and separatist militants.

Skirmishes in May between the Malian army and a coalition of rebels from the MNLA and HCUA saw at least 50 soldiers killed in Kidal, a stronghold of the Tuareg people. 

A ceasefire secured by Mauritanian leader and African Union chief Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has been in place since, but the Malian government has expressed alarm at the "concentrations of armed groups" in the desert.

Mali's separatist groups agreed on Sunday to speak with a "single voice" in the talks in Algiers.

"Now it's one voice who will speak on behalf of the people of Azawad (northern Mali)," said Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Salah, president of the Coalition of the People for Azawad (CPA), according to Algeria's APS news agency.

He said the CPA, the MNLA and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) had signed an agreement to work together for the "legitimate" aspirations of the people of Azawad.

The talks are being held with a new defense agreement in place between Mali and its former colonial power France.

Paris recently wound up Operation Serval, its military offensive launched in January 2013 to oust al-Qaida-linked Islamists who had occupied northern Mali.

Serval has been replaced by a wider counter terrorism operation, codenamed Barkhane, to be implemented in partnership with Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said around 3,000 French soldiers will be part of the operation, 1,000 of whom will stay in northern Mali.

Drones, helicopters, fighter jets, armored vehicles and transport planes will also take part in Operation Barkhane -- the name of a crescent-shaped sand dune in the desert -- which will have its headquarters in the Chadian capital N'Djamena.

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