Mali Islamists agree to talks on north's fateBy ROMARIC OLLO HIEN | Tuesday, June 19 2012 at 10:01
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.
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 (Defenders of Faith) delegation.
During the meeting, the mediator asked Ansar Dine to break off with the extremist group Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The leader of Ansa Dine, Iyad Ag Ghaly, has been pushing to impose Sharia law in northern Mali despite the fact that such imposition is prohibited by the Malian constitution, which recognises the equality of all religions.
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.
"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 President 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 AQIM, was not in Ouagadougou.
Mr 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.
Meanwhile, the premises of a private Malian television, Africable, were attacked last week by armed men as it prepared to broadcast an interview with a spokesman of one of the rebel groups.
Malian media have been reporting threats by armed people regarding some stories, especially those dealing with rebel issues.
The government has denied any responsibility for the attacks.
At the same time President Dioncounda Traoré has announced that he has been surgically operated on the face following the May 21 assault in his office by disgruntled compatriots.
He has since been in Paris for medical treatment.
"I experienced a hard time. I suffered in my flesh and my soul," he recalled while urging Malians to embrace reconciliation.
"Surgeons were able to put all the bones back to their initial positions. I am recovering, thanks to God," he said.
- AFP with additional reporting by KOUF KAF
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