Mali rebel groups agree ceasefire

Hopes of end to crisis raised after successful first meeting between Ansar Dine and Tuareg movements and Malian officials

The two rebel groups that seized control of northern Mali in April, splitting the country in two and triggering the biggest crisis since independence, have agreed to a ceasefire as plans for an international intervention force faltered.

In the first direct talks with Malian officials, hardline Islamist movement Ansar Dine and Tuareg separatists who swept into the north following a March coup said they would seek a negotiated end to the crisis that has plunged the west African country into political instability.

"Dialogue is the best way to resolve the political grievances of the armed Tuareg movements and Ansar Dine members approaching in good faith," said Djibril Bassolé, the Burkina Faso foreign minister mediating between the Mali government and northern-based rebel groups. Both groups had agreed to drop calls for independence and imposing sharia law across the country, Bassolé added.

The Tuareg independence movement, the Mouvement National de Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA), pushed government soldiers out of the northern two-thirds of Mali in April, but their rebellion has since been hijacked by hardliner Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine and al-Qaida's north African wing, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim).

A senior negotiator from the Economic Community Of West African States (Ecowas) regional bloc, who was present at the talks, said "credibility risks" remained, but it was hoped moderates would provide a bulwark against dissidents who might side with extremists. "Obviously autonomy later is being discussed," the source added.

Mali has bowed to months of pressure from Ecowas to enter discussions with Ansar Dine and particularly the Tuareg, who have a long history of animosity with the southern-based governments.

Identity politics have churned behind the growing fog of conflict, with civilians who were angry at a growing delay in a military offensive flocking to militia groups organised along ethnic lines.

"This is the worse possible outcome. I cannot understand how the government now wants to talk to groups that have caused the country to split in two," said Haidarata Tandina, based in the ancient city of Timbuktu under the control of Islamists who swept in alongside the Tuaregs.

Regional powers fear the Tuaregs' long-cherished bid for independence could leap borders, complicating the fight against al-Qaida-linked affiliates and tipping the entire region into crisis. The desert dwellers could boost a flourishing "kidnap economy" if they forge links with extremist groups the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) or Aqim.

Nervous officials in neighbouring Niger, which is home to the largest population of an estimated 3 million Tuaregs spread across five Sahelian countries, have scrambled to prevent the conflict from flaring within their borders. "The Tuareg are a regional population so it is important they are not isolated militarily as that could be decisive" in whether the conflict spreads, said Mohammed Anacko, a former Tuareg guerrilla who now heads the regional council in the Niger city of Agadez.

Soaring unemployment rates, historically one of the main drivers of periodic Tuareg unrest, has made youths soft targets for recruitment, locals say. "There are no jobs. We cannot be expected to survive by eating sand. Some youths are saying, if they fight, at least they can eat," said Mahamal Azawa, a Tuareg activist in Azawad, northern Niger.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida's ambition to spread across the Sahara appears to be gaining traction. One of its most prolific leaders of the franchise's north African wing has began carving a separate cell. Moktar Belmoktar, believed to be behind the 2008 kidnap of United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler in Niger, will likely set up a cell in neighbouring Niger or Chad, sources said.

"It's so that we can better operate in the field that we have left this group which is tied to the 'Maghreb' [north Africa] appellation. We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso," a close associate told the Associated Press.

Ecowas is still pushing for an armed offensive to flush the global franchise's powerful north African wing out of the desert. "If we reach a resolution in December, we hope to organise this intervention in the first quarter," said Ivory Coast president Alassane Ouattara.

United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon last week tentatively backed plans for an intervention with a one-year mandate, but it remains unclear who would fund the mission, with no clear exit plan. Running the operation would cost around $500m annually, security sources estimate.

Funding should come from "voluntary or bilateral contributions", Ban said.


Monica Mark in Lagos

The GuardianTramp

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