BAMAKO, Mali -- The al-Qaida-linked group that controls much of northern Mali and other rebels agreed Friday to cease hostilities in the areas they control, a day after the United Nations backed a regional plan to oust the Islamists from power in a military intervention next year.
Ansar Dine, which controls the northern cities of Timbuktu and Kidal, and a secular rebel group known as the NMLA made the concessions following talks in neighboring Algeria. The two groups vowed "to refrain from all actions that would cause confrontation and hostilities in the areas that they control." They also vowed to work to free hostages in northern Mali, where al-Qaida's North Africa branch has made millions of dollars through ransoms and is now holding seven French nationals captive.
The United Nations' most powerful body on Thursday authorized an African-led force, but made no mention of size and set no timeline for military action. U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous recently said he does not expect a military operation to begin until September or October of next year.
Ansar Dine had previously met with government representatives in talks facilitated by the Burkina Faso government. As a result, other militants in the north have sought to join Ansar Dine recently, including members of the secular NMLA group.
Malians living under the grip of al-Qaida-linked militants expressed dismay Friday that it could be nearly a year before a regional military intervention to oust the Islamists from power. "We want rapid military action to liberate our cities," said Alphadi Cisse, who lives in Timbuktu. "There is no school, there is no work and no money. We are fed up with this situation."
The mayor of Timbuktu, which is controlled by Ansar Dine, has described conditions there as "a living hell." The al-Qaida-linked militants have imposed their version of strict Islamic law known as Shariah. They have stoned to death a couple accused of adultery, hacked off the hands of thieves and recruited children as young as 12 into their ranks. Heavily armed men also have attacked bars that sell alcohol, and banned men and women from socializing in the streets. The turmoil has decimated the economy of Timbuktu, once a thriving tourist town.
Thursday's resolution, adopted unanimously by the U.N. Security Council, welcomes troop contributions pledged by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS and calls on member states, including from the neighboring Sahel region, to contribute troops to the mission. Council diplomats say the best-trained African troops in desert warfare are from Chad, Mauritania and Niger.
The resolution stressed that there must be a two-track plan -- political and military -- to reunify the country, which has been in turmoil since a coup in March. Islamist groups were able to take hold of northern Mali, an area the size of Texas, after the March coup created a power vacuum.
Coup members created new political turmoil earlier this month, when they arrested the country's prime minister and forced him to resign -- a move that raised new concerns about the ability of the Malian military help regain control of the north.
Northerners in Mali say the longer the world waits, the more entrenched militants become.
Hamadada Toure, a teacher from the city of Gao, urged the international community to follow through swiftly on its pledges to help free the north. "If the resolution is not acted upon to chase the Islamists out of towns, all the comings and goings of diplomats and the mobilization of the international community are a bluff," he said from southern Mali, where he sought refuge earlier this year.