Fresh round of Mali peace talks to begin in Algiers

AFP , Sunday 31 Aug 2014

Malian government negotiators will sit down with separatist militias on Monday, hoping to end the conflicts that continue to rage in the country a year after it returned to democracy.

Riven by ethnic rivalries, a Tuareg rebellion and an Islamist insurgency in its vast desert north, the west African nation has struggled for stability and peace since a military coup in 2012.

The second round of talks in the capital of neighbouring Algeria will bring together various warring factions who signed an interim agreement in June last year to pave the way for nationwide elections.

Since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power negotiations have stalled, however, and northern Mali has seen a spike in violence by Islamist and separatist militants.

Skirmishes in May between the Malian army and a coalition of rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) saw at least 50 soldiers lose their lives in the Tuareg region of Kidal.

A ceasefire obtained by Mauritanian leader and African Union (AU) chief Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has been in place since but the Malian government has expressed alarm at the "concentrations of armed groups" in the desert.

"This time in Algiers, participants will get to the bottom of their problems and, it is to be hoped, come to an agreement," said former prime minister Modibo Keita, the president's envoy at the talks.

The talks will be based on a "roadmap" agreed by the different sides in July and overseen by a "college of mediators" including Algeria, the AU and the 15-member regional bloc ECOWAS.

A "college of facilitators" will be made up of delegates from the European Union, France, Niger and Nigeria.

Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara has suggested that the government will make concessions but has set a "red line", saying that Mali's territorial integrity and secular status are not up for discussion.

Ahead of the talks, rival factions of "hawks" and "doves" among the rebels met in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, to sign a broad policy agreement ensuring they would speak with one voice in Algiers.

The signatories of the document, seen by AFP, are asking for "special legal status" for their homeland in northern Mali.

They want official recognition of the "legitimacy of the struggle of Azawad/northern Mali for 50 years to enjoy a special status in line with the geographical, economic, social, cultural and security realities".

The MNLA and HCUA -- backed by a wing of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) -- are seen as the "hawks" at the negotiations.

The "doves" include a rival wing of the MAA, the Coalition of the People of Azawad, which is a sub-division of the MNLA, and a vigilante movement in the region.

"What we are seeing is that all the armed groups in northern Mali, who once fought each other on the ground, are increasingly uniting to deal with the Malian state. This is a new phenomenon," said political scientist Mamadou Samake.

Observers expect the negotiations to last for "weeks" with the claim for special legal status expected to be the main sticking point.

"The devil is in the detail, and the armed groups could require it to be in black and white, a precise record of the commitments made by each side," an African diplomat in Bamako told AFP.

The talks take place with a new defence agreement in place between Mali and its former colonial power France.

Paris recently wound up Operation Serval, its military offensive launched in January 2013 to oust Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who had occupied northern Mali.

Serval has been replaced by a wider counter-terrorism operation, codenamed Barkhane, to be implemented in partnership with Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said around 3,000 French soldiers will be part of the operation, 1,000 of whom will stay in northern Mali.

Drones, helicopters, fighter jets, armoured vehicles and transport planes will also take part in Operation Barkhane -- the name of a crescent-shaped sand dune in the desert -- which will have its headquarters in the Chadian capital N'Djamena.

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