OUAGADOUGOU — Wine, women and song are putting Malian Islamists to the test as they talk about the future of their divided country with regional mediators in Burkina Faso.
"The problem is that in our hotel we can't help looking at the beautiful women and listening to the music," sighed Algabass Ag Intalla, a member of the hardline Ansar Dine, one of the groups controlling northern Mali since March.
"It's a real test for us Muslims to have to look at all that as well," he added, pointing to rows of alcoholic drinks in full view from the lobby.
An Ansar Dine delegation arrived in Ouagadougou on June 15 at the invitation of Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore, named chief mediator in the Malian crisis by the Economic Community of West African States.
The Islamists met Compaore on June 18 and have since been continuing talks with his aides. The Burkina government has put them up in a luxury hotel in the well-heeled Ouaga 2000 district.
"President Compaore asked us to stay, so we are still here," delegation leader Algabass, dressed in a white robe and turban like his five colleagues, told AFP.
Soft music drifted through from the bar as they sat on couches in the hotel lobby.
Delegation spokesman Cheick Ag Wissa, speaking broken French, asked for the sound to be turned off, but only succeeded in having it lowered.
"The manager has told us not to switch it off until the bar is closed," a member of staff explained.
It is a sharp contrast from the situation in northern Mali, where Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are trying to impose Muslim Sharia law by force.
Their ultra-conservative doctrine punishes smokers, drinkers, adulterers and even football fans. On Wednesday, in the desert city of Timbuktu, a couple who had a child out of wedlock were given 100 lashes.
The Ansar Dine representatives, whose chief Iyad Ag Ghaly has remained in Mali, are also watching what they eat and where they pray.
"In the morning we have meat at the home of a friend, we always eat fish," Algabass said. "They say the food is halal, but we still prefer fish.
"We pray at a friend's, we don't go to the mosques here."
Cheikh Ag Wissa, like the others a member of the desert Sahel region's nomad Tuareg tribes, chimed in, "There's something else we miss: dates and camel's milk."
Also in the hotel are representatives of the secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which spearheaded the capture of northern Mali amid the confusion sparked by a military coup in the capital, Bamako.
The MNLA, which seeks the independence of the region, has been shunted aside by its rivals, and a merger with Ansar Dine collapsed amid dissent over the implementation of Sharia.
Despite the acrimony, the two groups are still speaking to each other, if only in Ouagadougou.
"We see each other every day, we greet each other but we don't talk politics," Algabass said.
"They are our brothers," said Colonel Hassan Ag Mehdy, a member of the MNLA delegation. "We talk to each other even if we are fundamentally opposed."
Another member of the group, Magdi Ag Bahada, added, "We are the same: the other day I had some tea brought from Mali, which I gave to Ansar Dine."
Compaore's aides meanwhile are holding separate talks with the two sides, trying to persuade them to have another shot at making up, and above all urging Ansar Dine to have nothing to do with the followers of Al-Qaeda.
"We are trying to prepare their minds to accept round-table talks which have to be held one day," a senior Burkina army officer said.
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