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Ouagadougou, Mali - One of the main Islamist groups controlling northern Mali offered important concessions on Wednesday, as plans to send an international military force to the country gathered steam.
Ansar Dine, which in Arabic means “Defenders of the Faith”, said it was ready to help rid the region of “terrorism” and “foreign groups”, and said it no longer hoped to see sharia law imposed throughout the massive desert north.
If Ansar Dine negotiated with the Mali authorities, “one can foresee ways and means in which one can get rid of terrorism, drug trafficking and foreign groups”, Mohamed Ag Aharib, spokesperson of an Ansar Dine delegation in Burkina Faso, told AFP.
The plight of northern Mali, which was seized by Islamists and Tuareg rebels following a March coup in the capital Bamako, has been a source of growing international concern after the fighters imposed sharia law and operated across the region - an area bigger than France - with impunity.
Among the groups is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Top US General Carter Ham on Wednesday urged a global fight against the group, saying it could “export violence” to the West.
Ham, the head of the US Africa Command, also said AQIM was linked to a deadly September 11 attack on the US mission in Benghazi that killed US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others.
“If we, the international community, don't find a way to help the Africans address this threat, it's going to worsen,” he said.
Ansar Dine, AQIM, and another AQIM-tied group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, have imposed a brutal form of sharia Islamic law, stoning to death unmarried couples, amputating thieves' hands and feet and whipping drinkers and smokers.
Islamists in Timbuktu have also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines that have been revered for centuries and are classed as WorldHeritage Sites, but which the radicals consider blasphemous.
Ansar Dine has sent envoys to Burkina Faso and Algeria in a bid to negotiate an end to the crisis and has previously called on other fighters in northern Mali to join them in political dialogue. Ansar Dine's latest statements Wednesday were welcomed by the Tuareg MNLA group.
The growing readiness for dialogue comes after the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) approved over the weekend a force of 3 300 troops, logistically backed by Western nations, into Mali.
The African Union on Tuesday endorsed the plan and the United Nations is expected to pass a resolution approving the mission, though it remains unclear when the first troops could be deployed.
Ansar Dine, which has previously said it wanted to see sharia law across northern Mali, backtracked on its demands on Wednesday, saying instead it only would push for the hardline religious law in the Kidal area, a sparsely populated region in the country's north-east.
African Union Commission head Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma on Wednesday urged armed groups in Mali to sever ties with “terrorists”.
“We'd like to convince the armed Malian groups to come to the negotiations and to de-link themselves with the terrorists and criminal groups,” Zuma said.
“The preparations for the intervention are continuing, and we'll take it step by step,” she said, stressing that she preferred a peaceful resolution.
Also on Wednesday, Mauritania said it was planning to close its immense border with Mali if a military force was deployed to tackle the armed Islamist groups.
Mauritania was “worried of the consequences of this war on the country and is currently preparing a plan to close its borders with Mali and respond to any eventual threat”, a Mauritanian military source said, reiterating that his country did not plan on sending troops into Mali.
Algeria on Tuesday said it would take “appropriate measures” to ensure the defence of its interests and said it would protect its borders “to the maximum”.
The closure of the Mauritanian and Algerian borders - spanning hundreds of kilometres - with Mali is primarily aimed at stopping armed Islamist groups from encroaching on their territory.
Landlocked Mali neighbours several nations but the bulk of its northern territory abuts Mauritania, Algeria and Niger. - Sapa-AFP