PARIS Mali's Tuareg separatist rebels dismissed French calls to disarm ahead of July elections on Wednesday saying they would fight to the death if Malian troops entered areas under its control, underscoring the challenge of unifying the West African state.
Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, the group's vice-president and chief negotiator, said Paris had a moral obligation to force the interim Malian government to the negotiating table to flesh out a deal that would create a framework for autonomy in the north and provide international guarantees.
"Have you ever seen a group disarm before negotiations take place?" Maiga told Reuters.
The restless Tuaregs have launched successive revolts since Mali gained independence from France in 1960, alleging neglect and mistreatment by the black-led central government in Bamako.
Despite French pressure, there are no signs in Bamako of talks starting between the government and the MNLA separatists, made up primarily of Tuaregs. Malian officials have said they want to restore their control over the northern region.
An announced visit to the Tuareg stronghold of Kidal by Mali's Prime Minister Diango Cissoko was this month postponed indefinitely.
"Holding elections just when the Malian army is threatening to enter Kidal is not realistic," said Maiga. "It's a war that is imminent not elections. If France allows the Malian army to attack us in Kidal, then we will defend ourselves to the death."
The MNLA had seized control of north Mali, which it calls Azawad, in an April 2012 uprising. It was quickly pushed aside by better-armed Islamist rebels, including al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM, sparking fears the region would become a launch pad for attacks on the West.
A three-month French-led campaign intervention broke Islamist dominance of northern Mali, sweeping their forces into desert and mountain hideaways, but Paris has now started to withdraw troops as it looks to hand over to U.N. peacekeeping forces by July.
French President Francois Hollande has demanded the presidential and legislative elections go ahead as planned. French diplomatic sources say the MNLA must now disarm and become a political party.
"France knows our position. We will not accept disarming without a consensus between us and the Malian government. We have to be shown what we will get tomorrow and who will guarantee it," Maiga said in Paris where he was meeting parliamentarians.
"France is running Mali," he said. "It must put pressure on Bamako."
Analysts have warned that a botched election could sow the seeds of further unrest and north-south conflict in the landlocked former French colony.
Hundreds of thousands of Malians have been displaced by the fighting and the north remains vulnerable to guerrilla-style counter attacks, despite the presence of thousands of African troops under the AFISMA banner. This is expected to become the backbone for a proposed 11,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Highlighting the tensions, a senior government official in Bamako, said he had little faith in the MNLA.
"If they don't disarm by the elections then we'll have to go in and sort them out."
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Jon Hemming)