OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Talks will resume soon between the Malian government and an ethnic Tuareg rebel group whose influence has been growing in the country's north, Burkina Faso's foreign minister said Monday.
No immediate date was given for the negotiations, though the announcement comes amid lingering questions about the future of rebel-held Kidal.
It has remained unclear how the town could take part in long-awaited elections now promised for July. Earlier this month, a Malian military spokesman said Mali was in the final stages of preparation for an assault on the northern provincial capital.
Burkina Faso Foreign Affairs Minister Djibril Bassole told journalists that talks would soon resume. The last negotiations were back in December before the French launched a military offensive to oust radical jihadists who had battled with the Tuareg rebels for control of Kidal and other northern cities.
"In the days to come, contact will be made with all the players and partners from the international community so that favorable conditions can be set up for holding elections in a calm atmosphere with the participation of all," he said.
Those conditions must include the disarmament of rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or the NMLA. The group that controls Kidal has exerted its influence in the months since the French-led offensive ousted the jihadists from major towns in the region.
NMLA fighters man the roadblocks in Kidal, and they have since started collecting taxes and appointed their own governor, thumbing their nose at the Malian state even as French soldiers continue to occupy the Kidal airport.
Kidal's confused status has become an embarrassment for the French as well as for the Malian government.
Many Malians remain opposed to the idea of negotiating with the Tuaregs, blaming them for the unrest that has devastated the country's economy and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
A Tuareg rebellion last year and the Malian military's weak response to it first prompted mutinous soldiers to overthrow the president in a coup. The turmoil allowed jihadists to make inroads into the north, where they established a strict form of Islamic law that meted out public amputations and executions.
Tuaregs, though, remain deeply concerned about having the Malian military return to Kidal, fearing that the military could seek revenge after their humiliating defeat last year at the hands of the NMLA. Already in Timbuktu, in Gao and in Sevare, the Malian army is accused of carrying out reprisal killings of Tuareg civilians accused of complicity with the rebels.
Bassole's comment Monday came after he met with the newly appointed Malian envoy to Kidal Tiebele Drame and Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore. Compaore had served as a mediator in the Mali crisis for the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS. At talks held in Ouagadougou last December, the NMLA agreed to stop pursuing a separate state in Mali's north called Azawad.
The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert, have risen up against the central government in Mali several times since the country's independence from France in 1960. They have long complained that Mali's government — which is dominated by ethnic groups from the country's south — has ignored the nation's impoverished north.