Delayed Mali government talks with Tuareg set to open

Bamako's emissary for north Mali, Tiebile Drame attends a press conference on December 3, 2012 in Ouagadougou.  By  (AFP/File)

Bamako’s emissary for north Mali, Tiebile Drame attends a press conference on December 3, 2012 in Ouagadougou. By (AFP/File)

OUAGADOUGOU (AFP) – Talks between Malian authorities and armed ethnic Tuareg groups, who hold the northeastern town of Kidal, will get underway Saturday after a day’s delay, a source close to the Burkinabe mediators said.

“The negotiations will start (Saturday),” the source told AFP, with Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore, a mediator for West Africa, first meeting representatives of the international community .

“Then at 11:00 (local and GMT) negotiations will open with the Malian parties,” the source said.

The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Mali spoke earlier of his optimism that the talks between the government and armed rebels would ease the way for elections, despite recent heavy fighting.

Asked by AFP whether deadly clashes between Tuareg rebels and Malian soldiers in the country’s north this week had undermined the dialogue in Burkina Faso, Bert Koenders replied: “No, I don’t think so.”

Koenders told reporters in Bamako he placed “great hope in the Ouagadougou negotiations”, which have brought together Malian officials and Tuareg leaders to hammer out a deal on organising free and fair elections.

The talks had been due to get underway on Friday, but were postponed at the last minute at Bamako’s request, a diplomatic source said.

The unexplained delay highlights the palpable tension in recent days, after heavy fighting near rebel-held Kidal.

Armed ethnic Tuaregs from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (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.