BAMAKO — Mali's new foreign minister said Tuesday that winning back the Islamist-occupied north was the top priority of a unity government which was formed on orders from West African mediators.
"The priority is reconquest, the liberation of the north from dark forces currently occupying it," said Tieman Coulibaly, who was appointed as foreign minister on Monday, joining 12 other new cabinet members in the government shake-up.
He was speaking in an interview with French International Radio (RFI).
The new government, announced by presidential decree on Monday, saw six ministers booted out of their positions in an administration formed to take over from a military junta that took power in a March coup.
Once one of the region's most stable democracies, Mali has crumbled into despair since President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown by the military.
The ensuing political turmoil allowed Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels to wrest control of the vast desert north, an area larger than France or Texas, where they have enforced strict sharia law.
The new government was formed after an order from Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mediators. Embattled interim authorities stood by helplessly as the Islamists deepened their hold on the north.
Controversial Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra remains at the head of government despite calls for his resignation from much of Mali's political class who accused him of incompetence and having no plan to win back the north.
Interim President Dioncounda Traore in August declared his confidence in his prime minister, a renowned astrophycisist and former chairman of Microsoft Africa.
It is hoped the more inclusive government will be able to come up with a solution to win back the north, including requesting the deployment of some 3,000 troops made available by ECOWAS.
The national unity government is made up of 31 ministers of almost all political shades including four women.
It includes a new ministry of religious affairs, allies of the prime minister as well as retaining military members close to the former junta in their respective roles as defence, security and territorial administration ministers.
According to a document seen by AFP on Tuesday and dated August 15, Diarra has decided to hold a "national dialogue" on how the transition should be led.
He has created a committee of seven people with diverse political backgrounds to set up the talks on an as yet unknown date.
The plans of the government to tackle the Islamist occupation remain unclear.
The extremists seek an Islamic state, and have in recent weeks stoned an unmarried couple to death and cut off the hand of a thief, whipping smokers and drinkers and forcing women to cover up.
Security experts say the various armed Islamist groups are acting under the aegis of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), prompting fears the zone could become a haven for terrorists.
Fighters from Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) have also destroyed part of Timbuktu's cultural treasures, declaring the ancient Muslim shrines "haram" or forbidden in Islam.
ECOWAS has presented Bamako with a plan to secure the transition regime and train up Malian soldiers before heading to the north. Bamako has rejected the offer to have regional soldiers secure government institutions.
"Regarding the military intervention, that is where there are difficulties, probably because the military objective as such has not been clearly defined," said Burkina Faso Foreign Minister and chief mediator in the crisis, Djibrill Bassole.
He said in an interview with RFI that Mali's army needs training, equipment and restructuring to be able to win back the north, as an eventual ECOWAS force would only be acting "in support".
The new government also has to organise presidential elections.
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