Malian president offers Tuareg rebels talks

Thu Jan 31, 2013 2:24pm EST
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By Benoit Tessier and Vicky Buffery

TIMBUKTU, Mali/PARIS (Reuters) - Mali's president offered talks to Tuareg rebels on Thursday in a bid for national reconciliation after a French-led offensive drove their Islamist former allies into desert and mountain hideaways in the country's vast north.

France's three-week ground and air campaign has dislodged al Qaeda-linked fighters from northern Mali's major towns, ending the first phase of an operation designed to prevent Islamists using the region as a launchpad for attacks on neighboring West African countries and Europe.

France is now due to gradually transfer the military mission to a U.N.-mandated African force of some 8,000 soldiers, tasked with securing northern towns and pursuing militants into their mountain redoubts near the Algerian border.

French air strikes have destroyed the Islamists' training camps and logistics bases but Paris says a long-term solution hinges on finding a political settlement between Mali's restive northern Tuareg community and the distant capital Bamako.

Under pressure from Paris, Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore said he was ready to open talks with the Tuareg rebel MNLA provided it honored a pledge to drop its claims of independence for northern Mali.

The MNLA seized control of north Mali in April before its revolt was hijacked by the better armed and financed Islamists.

"Today, the only group that we could think of negotiating with is certainly the MNLA. But, of course, on condition that the MNLA drops any pretence to a territorial claim," Traore told French radio RFI, ruling out talks with any Islamist groups.

MNLA reoccupied its former northern stronghold of Kidal on Monday after al Qaeda-linked fighters fled French air strikes. It has offered to battle the Islamists in the nearby desert and Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, amid fears that the Malian army would carry out reprisals against Tuaregs in recaptured towns.   Continued...

Malian soldiers heading to Gao in a pickup truck arrive in the recently liberated town of Douentza January 30, 2013. French troops took control on Wednesday of the airport of Mali's northeast town of Kidal, the last urban stronghold held by Islamist rebels, as they moved to wrap up the first phase of a military operation to wrest northern Mali from rebel hands. REUTERS/Joe Penney (MALI - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS MILITARY CONFLICT)