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Indirect Mali crisis talks begin with Tuareg groups

Malian authorities and armed ethnic Tuareg groups have begun indirect talks in a bid to resolving conflict in the country. It is hoped the ceasefire meeting will allow nationwide elections to take place next month.

Burkino Faso President Blaise Compaore, who is mediating talks between the two sides in Ouagadougou, met separately with the Bamako delegation before discussions with a Tuareg mission on Saturday.

"The aim is to find a durable solution to the grave crisis engulfing Mali," Compaore said.

"Security is vital for the holding of free and transparent elections," he added, appealing for end to renewed hostilities between rebels and government forces.

Both groups' meeting in Ouagadougou, Compaore said, had to agree on the "redeployment of general administration, basic social services, defense and security forces to the north of Mali and in particular Kidal."

"This meeting raises great hope for the population of Azawad," said Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, chief negotiator for the MNLA and the HCUA Tuareg umbrealla group. Tuaregs call the vast impoverished region that they claim as theirs Azawad.

"We hope this meeting will be the start of a definitive solution to a problem which has lasted half a centrury."

A meeting between the two sides was not yet planned, Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole said. The talks, he added, were aimed at producing an interim deal by Monday.

The three-day mediated talks follow the first fighting in months between Mali's army and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) rebels. Government troops advanced toward the Tuaregs' last stronghold of Kidal in the northeast of the country.

Should both sides not be able to reach an agreement by Monday, the government announced it may occupy Kidal by force.

Kidal has been occupied since the end of January by MNLA rebels, who were accused of "ethnic cleansing" in the area. Mali's government has previously said it planned to recapture Kidal before the July 28 election.

The talks, which were expected to begin on Friday, were postponed at the last minute at the request of the Malian government.

jlw/rc (AFP, Reuters, AP)