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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is set to unblock 250 million euros (213 million pounds) in development aid to Mali frozen after a March 2012 coup allowed Islamist insurgents to seize cities and territory in the north of the desert country.
The aid money gradually will be restored this year, Europe's development chief Andris Piebalgs told a meeting of EU aid ministers in Dublin on Tuesday, adding that the EU was satisfied Mali had taken steps towards restoring democratic government.
"The swift adoption by the Malian authorities of a transition roadmap to restore democracy and stability has opened the door for lifting the precautionary measures taken after the coup d'etat of March 2012," Piebalgs said in a statement.
France sent military forces to Mali in January after the country appealed to Paris for urgent military support to halt advances by Islamists rebels and defuse the risk of Mali being used as a springboard for attacks in Europe or northern Africa.
Since the French intervention, Islamist rebels have been pushed back from the main urban centres of northern Mali into the mountains and desert, and French leaders have said they hope to withdraw forces in March.
Mali hopes to organise elections on July 31, Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore said in January.
But the country remains unstable. In addition to development aid, the EU has provided 116 million euros in immediate humanitarian aid to Mali since the beginning of 2012, to help provide food and shelter to refugees and to local residents affected by conflict.
In 2012, roughly 150,000 refugees left Mali for the surrounding countries of Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger.
"We cannot possibly deal with Mali in isolation of the broader Sahel region," Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said.
She said that the flow of refugees to an area that has already experienced food crisis in 2012, put "enormous pressure" on an already fragile region.
Additional reporting by Stephen Mangan; Editing by Michael Roddy