OUAGADOUGOU — Mali's Islamist rebels agreed Monday to start talks on the fate of the desert north they seized this year but mediators Burkina Faso said the group should sever all ties with its Al-Qaeda backers.
Ansar Dine joined forces with a Tuareg rebel group to conquer the entire northern half of Mali in early April, effectively partitioning the landlocked west African country and raising fears of regional destabilisation.
Regional bloc ECOWAS has a 3,300-strong force on standby to help reunite Mali, which was also rocked by a short-lived coup in the south in March, but the UN Security Council has twice refused to back military intervention.
The breakthrough in efforts to look for a negotiated solution to the Malian crisis came during a meeting in Ouagadougou between ECOWAS-appointed mediator Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore and an Ansar Dine delegation.
"We accept Burkina Faso's mediation. We are following the path of this negotiation," said Cheick Ag Wissa, a spokesman for an Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) delegation that met Compaore in his palace.
He was speaking in Tamasheq, a language spoken by Tuareg in northern Mali, where rebels energised by the return from Libya last year of heavily armed mercenaries revived their decades-old independence struggle.
Djibrill Bassole, Compaore's foreign minister and a seasoned diplomat who has acted as a mediator in Sudan's troubled Darfur, confirmed Ansar Dine's willingness to engage in a negotiation process.
"The Ansar Dine delegation expressed its readiness to commit to the quest for a peaceful and negotiated solution to this crisis" under Burkina Faso's mediation, he said after the meeting.
Iyad Ag Ghaly, Ansar Dine's top leader and an influential former Tuareg rebel leader believed to have developed close ties with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was not in Ouagadougou.
Bassole made it clear that the negotiation process would hinge on Ansar Dine's willingness to break away from AQIM, which has used bases in northern Mali to launch several attacks and kidnap foreigners for ransom.
Ansar Dine's "action should be contained within Tuareg claims ... and any operational links with terrorist groups should be ruled out," he said.
Ansar Dine and the main Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), control the northern half of the bow tie-shaped nation, a territory larger than France or Texas.
They conquered Gao, the fabled city of Timbuktu and the rest of the north almost without a fight after the March 22 coup in Bamako -- which some observers have described as "accidental" -- created a power vacuum.
The two rebel groups proclaimed an independent Islamic state in May but soon fell out, with the Tuareg defending a secular state while Ansar Dine supported the implementation of strict sharia, the Islamic legal code.
The violence in Mali has annihilated a fledgling tourism industry and displaced 300,000 people, some internally and the rest scattered in neighbouring Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
The United Nations said last week that the humanitarian emergency in Mali, a country of around 15 million, had been overlooked and that $150 million dollars was needed to care for those uprooted by the conflict.
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