OUAGADOUGOU (AFP) – Talks between Malian authorities and armed ethnic Tuareg rebels aimed at resolving the conflict in the north of the country opened on Saturday after a day’s delay.
“The aim is to find a durable solution to the grave crisis engulfing Mali,” said President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso which is mediating the negotiations.
Tensions remain high in the north of Mali after heavy fighting near the rebel-held city of Kidal, stoking concerns about the staging of planned nationwide elections next month.
Kidal, a town prized by the Tuaregs, has been occupied by the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) since the end of January.
But Mali’s army has declared its intention to recapture Kidal before the presidential election scheduled for July 28, and deadly fighting erupted on Wednesday as troops advanced on the town.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative to Mali, Bert Koenders, said he did not believe that the fighting would undermine the talks in Burkina Faso.
Koenders told reporters in Bamako on Friday that he placed “great hope in the Ouagadougou negotiations”.
The talks had been due to get under way on Friday, but were postponed at the last minute at Bamako’s request, a diplomatic source said.
Armed ethnic Tuaregs from MNLA rose up to fight for independence for the north in January last year and overwhelmed government troops, leading frustrated mid-level officers to launch a coup that toppled elected president Amadou Toumani Toure.
Together with Al-Qaeda-linked militants, the Tuareg rebels seized key northern cities, but were then chased out by their former Islamist allies.
France sent troops in January to block an advance by the extremists on the capital Bamako, pushing them out of the main cities and into desert and mountain hideouts.
The French then let the MNLA back into Kidal, raising fears in Bamako, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) to the southwest, that Paris wants to let the Tuareg rebels keep Kidal as part of an eventual deal for self-rule.