DAKAR — West African mediators have postponed talks between Malian officials and the armed groups occupying the country’s north, after skirmishes this week between the army and the al-Qaida-linked militants. Regional leaders had hoped a meeting set for Thursday would stave off hostilities after one of the militant groups announced it was suspending a ceasefire.
Talks between Malian officials, Tuareg separatists and leaders of the Islamist militant groups occupying northern Mali have been postponed to January 19, according to an aide to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré, the official mediator.
The aide did not say why the talks were being pushed back but the move comes amid tensions between the Malian army and militant groups near the town of Douentza, the southernmost town held by the militants. On Monday the army fired on militant fighters to repel what the Defense Ministry says was an attempted attack.
In a communiqué read out on state television Tuesday, the Defense Ministry said the armed groups advanced south toward army positions and the army pushed them back.
Referring to the militant groups as “terrorists and armed al-Qaida Islamists,” the Defense Ministry said the Malian army saw no casualties, contrary to some reports.
As of Wednesday morning all was calm at the sight of the skirmish, says Defense Ministry spokesperson Lt Col Diarran Koné.
He says all is calm and things have returned to normal in Mopti, the garrison town at the edge of the government-controlled zone.
In an interview with VOA, Koné called the militants “criminals, terrorists, and drug traffickers” and said the army is on alert and “stands ready to end the suffering of the Malian people once and for all."
Last month, Ansar Dine, one of the groups controlling northern Mali, announced a ceasefire. But it suspended the ceasefire last week, saying the Malian government was not showing a will to negotiate.
Mali’s north has been occupied by Ansar Dine and other al-Qaida-linked groups since April. For months Mali and pan-African organizations have been drawing up plans for a West African military force to intervene. The United Nations Security Council has approved a plan for the Economic Community of West African States to deploy at least 3,000 troops to Mali to help retrain the army and retake the north.
But the regional force is not expected to intervene until the latter part of this year, and regional and international leaders have expressed hope for a negotiated solution.
Reached by telephone this week, Ansar Dine spokesperson Sanda ould Boumama would not comment on whether the armed groups in the north were pushing southward.