Mali's government must apply Islamic sharia law before armed Islamist groups who control the north of the country will negotiate, an Islamist official said Saturday.
Alioune Toure, a security chief in the city of Gao held by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), was responding to an offer of talks made late Friday by Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore.
Toure's comments came as the country marked its 1960 independence from France with a low-key but heavily-guarded ceremony in Bamako, where Traore laid flowers at the Independence Square monument in the presence of members of government and foreign ambassadors.
Traore made his offer of talks in a televised speech on Friday, ahead of Independence Day.
"As we are preparing for it, we will wage war if no other choice is left to us," he said.
"But we reaffirm here that our first choice remains dialogue and negotiation."
"I call on all armed groups operating in the north of our country to agree to commit resolutely to the path of dialogue and of negotiation in a sincere and constructive fashion," he added.
"We accept the hand Mr Traore has held out on one condition, that Mali implements sharia, the law of God, that's the only condition," Toure told AFP.
But he warned, "If it's war that they want, we also agree. God is the strongest."
Toure said that the Islamists did not consider Traore to be president if he did not submit to God's law.
"We are for holy way, nothing will stop us on the path of holy war," he said. "I have nothing more to add."
Traore Friday described Mali's present situation as a "tragedy" and warned that the nation's very existence was at stake.
He was president, he said, of a country at war, and the army needed to be "re-equipped, morally rearmed, put on a war footing and most of all reconciled with itself."
The much-anticipated speech came as the UN Security Council on Friday called for West African nations to produce a "feasible and actionable" military plan to retake northern Mali from Islamist militants.
A statement from the 15-nation council expressed "grave concern" at the "increasing entrenchment of terrorist elements, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" in northern Mali.
Islamist groups and other rebels seized on the chaos of a military coup in Mali in March to take the north of the vast West African country. They have since imposed harsh Islamic law and desecrated traditional Muslim shrines.
The Economic Community of West African States has called on the UN Security Council to back a proposed intervention force for Mali.
But the council has repeatedly said it needs more detail on the means and aims of any military operation and the consent of Mali's transitional government.
Mali was considered one of the region's stable democracies until a March 22 military coup plunged it into turmoil.
Tuareg nationalist groups and Islamists allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), including MUJAO, took advantage of the ensuring confusion to step up their military campaign in the north.
They seized key towns in the huge arid north, an area larger than France or Texas. The Islamists have since forced out the Tuareg groups and imposed strict sharia law in the region, with punishments including stoning and amputation of limbs.