Mali’s Tuareg separatist rebels are eager to negotiate with regional and international leaders on a way forward in northern Mali, one of the group’s leaders said on Saturday. The rebels, who sent a delegation to meet with ECOWAS mediators, looked to distance themselves from Islamic extremist groups with whom they currently share power in the region.
A National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) delegation met with Burkina Faso President and ECOWAS mediator Blaise Compaoré on Saturday.
The international community is wrestling with the chaotic status of Mali’s vast desert north, where fighters with Islamic extremist groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, swept in with MNLA to chase out the Malian army and government just over two months ago. With the more radical groups dominating in the region since, MNLA has found itself in a difficult position, with its aim of an independent Tuareg state getting lost in a wider problem.
MNLA's Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh talked to reporters just after the meeting in the Burkina capital Ouagadougou.
He said MNLA sets itself apart from all groups in the region of Islamic or terrorist orientation. Assaleh acknowledged that the Tuareg separatists had tried to create an alliance with the Tuareg Islamist group Ansar Dine, but saw that it would not stand.
MNLA, which has long maintained that it is committed to fighting terrorism, raised eyebrows in late May when it announced a pact with Ansar Dine, a group said to have close ties with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and which seeks to enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law in Mali.
Assaleh said imposing sharia is not part of his group's political vision, not part of their culture, nor part of their tradition.
MNLA benefitted from Islamic fighters in capturing northern Mali, but the political line was unclear at the time and now troubles are surfacing. Only days after the MNLA-Ansar Dine alliance was announced, the group's political wing backed away from it. On Friday and Saturday there were reports of clashes between the two groups in Mali’s northern Kidal region.
Assaleh said he delivered an official letter from MNLA’s secretary-general to Compaoré, stating that the group is ready to negotiate and accepts ECOWAS and the international mediation toward an end to the crisis in northern Mali.
Assaleh said it is only normal that MNLA sit with regional and international leaders to hammer out just what a Tuareg independent state would look like.
Burkina’s Foreign Minister, Djibril Bassolé, told reporters the meeting was not an opening of official negotiations between MNLA and ECOWAS mediators, but rather a discussion over terms for an eventual dialogue.
He said what’s positive is that MNLA indicated its willingness to find a negotiated solution with ECOWAS and the international community.
Bassolé, who said he would be in New York next week to brief the United Nations Security Council on Mali, noted that MNLA representatives would likely also meet soon with other ECOWAS heads of state.
At a June 7 meeting in Abidjan, ECOWAS said they would request a U.N. resolution providing official support for a military intervention in Mali. Regional leaders pledged negotiations were to continue with parties in northern Mali, “except terrorist groups”.