DAKAR — One of the three armed al-Qaida-linked militant groups in control of northern Mali since April says it rejects all ties to terrorism and is ready to negotiate with Mali's transitional authorities.
A spokesman for the delegation from the Malian Islamist group, Ansar Dine, read the declaration following a meeting with Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore Tuesday in Ouagadougou.
Spokesman Mohamed Aharib says Ansar Dine reiterates its availability to open a "frank and constructive dialogue" with Mali's transitional authorities. In the interest of creating an environment of confidence and security, he says, Ansar Dine pledges to observe a complete halt in hostilities to guarantee the free movement of people and goods and to facilitate humanitarian aid in the zones under its control. Ansar Dine, he says, "rejects all form of extremism and terrorism" and pledges to fight organized, cross-border crime.
Ansar Dine is one of four armed groups active in northern Mali where it and other al-Qaida-linked groups are imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, known as Sharia, that has included executions, amputations and other human rights abuses.
A VOA reporter in Ouagadougou pressed the delegation's spokesman, Aharib, on whether Ansar Dine is ready to give up its demands for Sharia.
He says Sharia is another matter and this is not the place to discuss it.
President Compaore is leading regional mediation efforts on behalf of ECOWAS - the Economic Community of West African States - aimed at isolating Ansar Dine and the other Malian armed movement, the Tuareg separatist group the MNLA, from foreign jihadist groups.
Northerners, however,say that there is significant crossover between the three armed Islamist groups in northern Mali, and it is unclear what - if any - impact negotiations with top officials from Ansar Dine could have on the ground.
The delegation has been in Ouagadougou talking to Burkinabe officials since Friday. Ansar Dine has also been carrying out talks with Algerian authorities.
Burkina Faso's foreign affairs minister, Djibril Bassole, said he hoped all armed groups in northern Mali would heed the call made by Ansar Dine, in its declaration Tuesday, to stop hostilities and join in talks with the government.
Bassole says he hopes they will abstain from violent acts and abuses of power that serve as useless provocation. He says in the coming days, he hopes to see Mali's transitional government designate a delegation to enter into direct contact with the Malian armed groups in the hopes of "normalizing" the situation in northern Mali.
ECOWAS continues to prepare for war in northern Mali, even as it seeks to bring local armed groups, like Ansar Dine, to the negotiating table.
ECOWAS defense chiefs met Tuesday in Bamako, where they finalized the strategic plans for an internationally-backed, regional military intervention to retake the North by force.
The Ivorian army chief, General Soumaila Bakayoko, is the president of ECOWAS Defense Chiefs of Staff Committee.
Bakayoko says the ECOWAS mission will bring "peace, security and stability" to the region and the continent. He called on those present, as well as their individual countries and armies, to act with determination to implement the strategic concept adopted Tuesday to liberate northern Mali.