Ouagadougou - Mali government officials met with two armed groups for the first time on Tuesday in a landmark encounter that saw the rebels pledge to respect the country's territorial integrity and root out “terrorism”.
The meeting, hosted in neighbouring Burkina Faso, came amid growing calls to deploy an international African force to northern Mali to eject the Islamist groups that seized control there after a March coup.
The talks in Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou were hosted by the country's President Blaise Compaore, who has acted as top mediator in the crisis for regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).
During the talks, Bamako and the rebel groups - the Islamist Ansar Dine and the Tuareg Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) - agreed to “observe a cessation of hostilities”, though there is not currently any fighting between the parties, and “recognised the need to create a framework of inclusive dialogue within Mali”, according to a Burkina Faso statement.
Among the principles for dialogue going forward are “respect of national unity and the territorial integrity of Mali”, the “rejection of any form of extremism and terrorism”, and the “respect of human rights, human dignity and basic and religious freedoms”, the statement said.
Mali was plunged into crisis when troops seized power in a March 22 coup, creating a power vacuum that allowed Tuareg and Islamist rebels to snatch the large desert north and take over key towns including Timbuktu.
The four main armed groups are the homegrown Ansar Dine and MNLA and the mainly foreign, Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
Though the MNLA initially fought alongside the Islamists, the Tuaregs were sidelined in June and have since clashed with AQIM fighters.
The international community is concerned AQIM is free to operate unchecked in northern Mali and could use the Texas-sized territory under Islamist control as a base for attacks on Europe and north Africa.
Ecowas has said it is ready to deploy 3 300 troops to help reclaim the north. It is waiting for approval from the United Nations, which is expected to decide sometime next month.
The African Union and Chad issued renewed calls for the UN to authorise military intervention.
Ivory Coast President and Ecowas chairman Alassane Ouattara late on Tuesday said a military intervention was vital and needed to be carried out quickly.
“Political dialogue is certainly needed, but a military intervention seems to me indispensable and (should be done) in the shortest timeframe,” Ouattara said.
In Ouagadougou, MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid said the talks “went very well”.
“No commitments were made, other than to get together around the same negotiating table,” he said.
If talks succeed, the armed intervention would only target AQIM and MUJAO.
Bamako delegation spokesman Tiebile Drame said Malian authorities require the MNLA “to solemnly and formally renounce their aims of independence and self-determination”.
Though marginalised on the ground, the MNLA is still considered a key player.
The Islamists in the north have been enforcing strict Islamic law, or sharia, in areas under their control, stoning and whipping unmarried couples and amputating hands and feet of suspected thieves.
An Ansar Dine official said the group was cautiously ready to “listen to” government envoys. The movement has softened its hardline Islamist stance, apparently under pressure from Burkina
Faso and Algeria, the other mediating nation.
It has said it renounces the imposition of sharia throughout Mali and has declared itself ready to help rid the north of “terrorism”.
African leaders are keen for the UN to authorise a military intervention and expressed disappointment over the last report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who was lukewarm on the intervention last week.
The UN chief wrote that a “military operation may be required as a last resort to deal with the most hardline extremist and criminal elements in the north”, but warned of worsening an already fragile humanitarian situation.
AQIM has already threatened France, which would provide logistical support to the intervention, and its African allies, warning “the Sahara will be a great graveyard for your soldiers”.
Armoured vehicles and weapons that had been ordered under the regime of toppled president Amadou Toumani Toure and that had been held in Guinea since July also began arriving in Mali's capital on Tuesday.
An official from Mali's defence ministry said Ecowas had approved the release of the equipment to Bamako.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton meanwhile said it was “essential that the international community helps the people of Mali find a lasting solution to the crisis facing their country.”
After a meeting with Romano Prodi, the new UN special envoy for the Sahel, Ashton said the EU would work closely with the UN, African Union and Ecowas “with the objective of achieving reunification and lasting peace” in Mali. - Sapa-AFP