BAMAKO Gunmen have freed four election workers and a deputy mayor a day after they were kidnapped in Mali's remote northern town of Tessalit, a local official said on Sunday.
An unexploded bomb was later discovered in the market of Kidal, another major northern town, adding to security concerns over a vote next week that some fear could lead to further instability, after a coup and Islamist uprising, due to poor preparations.
"The five hostages were picked up this morning by French soldiers outside the town. We do not know what led to them being freed," Cheick Fanta Mady Bouare, the prefect of Tessalit, told Reuters.
France sent troops to Mali early this year in an offensive against al Qaeda-linked fighters that last year seized the desert north alongside separatist Tuareg rebels.
The Islamists have been largely scattered and the Tuaregs have signed a deal to allow the vote to take place and then negotiate on their demands with an elected government.
The kidnapping follows accusations from Mali's government that the MNLA rebels had violated the ceasefire deal this week after four people died in clashes between pro-separatist Tuareg youths and black Africans in Kidal.
Bouare, the prefect, said that Baye Ag Diknane, a member of the MNLA, was arrested in connection for the kidnapping. It was not clear if he was acting on MNLA orders.
Residents and officials in Kidal said the bomb was found in the town's market, prompting people to flee the area.
"French soldiers came and cleared the area before working to deactivate the bomb," said Abou Maiga, a trader in the town.
"Everyone was panicking in Kidal this morning," he added.
Despite pockets of violence and fears hundreds of thousands of voters will not get the cards they need to vote on time, Mali is under intense foreign pressure to hold the vote on July 28.
Dramane Dembele, candidate for ADEMA, one of Mali's most-established parties, is expected to visit Kidal on Sunday.
On Saturday, Soumaila Cisse, another frontrunner in the race, said the kidnappings were regrettable but incidents like these would not undermine the credibility of the vote.
"Events in remote parts of the country should not disturb normal progress," he told Reuters. "People are trying to prevent the elections from taking place but we should resist this provocation."
(Additional reporting by Joe Penney; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)