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Polling officials among five abducted in northern Mali

Two young fighters of an Islamist group walk in the streets of Gao city in Mali on July 17, 2012
Two young fighters of an Islamist group walk in the streets of Gao city in Mali on July 17, 2012. Gunmen abducted four polling staff and a local official Saturday in the northern Malian town of Tessalit, a week before a presidential poll meant to restore

Gunmen abducted four polling staff and a local official Saturday in the northern Malian town of Tessalit, a week before a presidential poll meant to restore the country's unity, a local official said.

"Four electoral staff and an elected Tessalit official, all of them Malian... were snatched by gunmen Saturday," an official in the Kidal governor's office told AFP.

He said the five hostages had been at the town hall in Tessalit, a remote town some 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of the flashpoint northern city of Kidal, to plan the distribution of ID cards to registered voters when they were kidnapped.

"The governor is currently in an emergency meeting in Kidal to see what needs to be done. We have not yet had any news on the abductees," he said.

An African military source in Kidal, where four people were killed in pre-election violence Thursday, confirmed receiving information about a kidnapping involving polling staff and an elected official, but did not specify the number of victims.

A Malian security ministry official said the kidnapping appeared to be the work of the minority Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

"Everything indicates this is an attack by the MNLA, which doesn't want there to be an election," the official said.

The MNLA took control of Kidal in February after a French-led military intervention ousted Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters who had seized control of most of northern Mali.

The Malian authorities finally reclaimed the city after signing a deal with the MNLA and another Tuareg group on June 18 aimed at reuniting the country and clearing the way for elections to restore democratic rule.

Under the deal, MNLA forces moved into barracks as 150 regular Malian troops were deployed to secure Kidal ahead of the July 28 vote.

The kidnappings come after violence between Tuaregs and Mali's majority black population rocked Kidal on Thursday and Friday.

Officials said armed men went on a rampage Thursday, looting and ransacking shops and businesses, killing four people and wounding many others.

On Friday, unidentified arsonists set fire to the city's central market.

Many Malians accuse the light-skinned Tuaregs of being responsible for the chaotic sequence that saw the country split in two for nine months -- with the northern half ruled by groups that imposed an extreme form of Islamic law -- and shattered what had been considered a democratic success story in the restive region.

The decision to hold the first round of the presidential election on July 28, followed by a second round on August 11 if necessary, was taken by the Malian government under pressure from the international community.

But the presence of the Malian army has stoked tensions in the powder-keg town, with pro- and anti-government protests a regular occurrence and several troops injured by demonstrators.

Many observers and some Malian officials had suggested the election was being held too soon and that the interim administration needed more time to organise a credible poll.

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