Burkina Faso led efforts Sunday to persuade one of the armed Islamist groups controlling northern Mali to cut ties with Al-Qaeda as a west African military intervention looms to end the crisis.
Ansar Dine (Defender of Faith in Arabic) has joined with jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to take over the north of Mali in the wake of a March coup attempt in Bamako.
An Ansar Dine delegation which arrived in Ouagadougou on Friday meet late Sunday for about 45 minutes with Tieman Coulibaly, the foreign minister of Burkina’s President Blaise Compaore.
“Things went well,” said head delegate Algabass Ag Intalla after the talks.
A meeting on Monday between Intalla and Compaore, who has been the chief mediator in the Mali crisis for the regional bloc ECOWAS, was not being ruled out.
The Ansar Dine envoys “renewed their availability and their commitment to find a negotiated solution to the crisis,” said a source close to the mediation. The delegation was “very available, very open,” the source added.
As far as their “ties with the terrorist groups (are concerned), they insisted that they are independent” and had not committed “any act of terrorism,” said the source, but added that Burkina Faso expected “concrete commitments.”
Head delegate Intalla told AFP he had met late Saturday with the foreign minister in Mali’s transitional government, in Ouagadougou, but declined to comment on their discussions.
The 16-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has demanded that Ansar Dine end “terror and organized crime” in the region, breaking with the Al-Qaeda and other Islamist factions and enter into a political dialogue to re-establish the unity of the Mali nation.
While not immediately acceding to these demands, the group sent out a signal, saying that “Ansar Dine is independent of any other group,” Intalla told AFP.
He added that his movement “is ready to negotiate so that there will be peace.”
Countries in the region -- as well as the international community -- fear that north Mali could become a new breeding ground for “terrorists.”
On Friday Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said ECOWAS “must take action to root out Al-Qaeda, drug traffickers, kidnappers and other criminal elements who are turning northern Mali into a home for terrorists.”
Terrorism fears have also led Algeria to hold talks with Ansar Dine representatives, the Algerian daily El Watan reported, citing a source close to the matter while the government has made no comment.
Algeria is seen as a key player in dealing with Islamic extremism, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the regional heavyweight this past week to press for support in the Mali crisis.
Algeria has been hesitant to get involved in any military intervention; however Washington feels that with its powerful army, counter-terrorism experience and intelligence services, it could play a central role.
Like Burkina Faso, Algeria would like to see a negotiated solution to the Malian crisis, while not ruling out a military intervention.
Meanwhile in Bamako, international experts were expected to finish their work on plans for a military force to enter Mali’s desert north.
On October 12, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution preparing for the deployment of such a force for Mali, giving ECOWAS 45 days to firm up its plans.
The Mali coup attempt in March was triggered by soldiers angry at the government’s handling of the Tuareg rebellion in the north and ousted the regime in Bamako. That however allowed the north to fall into the hands of the Tuareg rebels fighting alongside Islamic extremists.
The hardline Islamists quickly sidelined the secular Tuareg, eclipsing the desert nomads’ plans for independence for an area they consider their homeland.
Mali was effectively split in two, with the north under control of Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), backed by AQIM.
They have imposed their strict interpretation of Islamic law, stoning to death and whipping transgressors and forcing women to cover up as well as destroying ancient cultural treasures deemed “idolatrous.”