DAKAR (Reuters) - The main leader of Senegal's southern, separatist rebellion has declared a ceasefire, boosting hopes for peace talks that could end one of Africa's longest-running conflicts.
Salif Sadio, traditionally the most powerful and hard-line of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), announced the ceasefire in a phone call on Tuesday to a local radio station in southern Senegal.
The government reacted positively: "Any move aimed at enabling dialogue between the two parties is welcomed," spokesman Abdoul Latif Coulibaly said on Wednesday.
He added, however, that the army would not drop its guard in protecting civilians or controlling Senegal's borders.
Casamance is a region separated from most of Senegal by Gambia and shares a border with Guinea-Bissau. Senegal has accused both countries of supporting the rebels at various stages of the conflict.
The MFDC has waged a low-level struggle for independence in Casamance since 1982 and the government says fighters are these days mostly involved in banditry and smuggling. A number of previous peace efforts have failed.
The Community of Sant'Egidio, a Rome-based Catholic organization that has been mediating between the two sides since 2012, said the ceasefire was a sign that the rebels were eager to build confidence and allow peace talks to take place.
Casamance was once a breadbasket for Senegal and home to long, white sandy beaches that were a tourist draw. But three decades of conflict have left the region isolated and underdeveloped.
(Reporting by Diadie Ba; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)