By Mark John and Tiemoko Diallo
DAKAR/BAMAKO (Reuters) - Tuareg-led rebels who seized the north of Mali in April declared on Sunday they had dropped their claims for a separate state after the rebellion was hijacked by al Qaeda-linked Islamists.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and its former Islamist allies routed government forces in the West African country three months ago and took over a stretch of the Sahara larger than France.
But the MNLA's declaration of independence for the state of Azawad has been largely ignored, and since then the movement has been sidelined by better-armed Islamist groups whose goal is to impose strict sharia Islamic law across the whole of Mali.
"We are seeking cultural, political and economic independence but not secession," Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, a senior member of the MNLA, told Reuters by telephone.
"It would be something like Quebec," he added, referring to the French-speaking province of Canada which is recognised as having a special status within the North American country.
A second MNLA official, Hama Ag Mahmoud, told Reuters in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott: "Independence has been our line since the start of the conflict but we are taking on board the view of the international community to resolve this crisis."
Islamist groups including the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine have carried out public whippings of alleged adulterers in the north and destroyed UNESCO-listed shrines of local saints in the ancient town of Timbuktu, arguing such worship was un-Islamic.
Contacted by telephone in Timbuktu, Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumana said he was not aware of any change in the MNLA position but added: "What I can tell you is that it is us who control the three regions of the north."
WHEN MILITARY ACTION?
Gold and cotton-producing Mali has been the first country in the region to be plunged into chaos as an indirect result of last year's civil war in Libya, from which heavy arms and fighters have spilled south since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
In Mali's case that bolstered the rebellion, prompting a March 22 coup d'etat by government soldiers complaining they lacked proper weapons to fight back. But the coup backfired spectacularly as rebels took it as a cue to make lightning advances through northern Mali in the days that followed.
Moves to launch a foreign military intervention have been held back by divisions among Mali's neighbours and a lack of proper government in Mali, whose caretaker civilian prime minister remains in Paris after being attacked by protesters in May.
Laurent Fabius, foreign minister of former colonial power France, said this week that foreign intervention was probable "at one moment or another".
An African Union summit said on Friday efforts were underway to find a political solution and that military action to take back the north was a last resort.
The MNLA's Assaleh called on foreign powers to act faster to launch military action and reaffirmed that MNLA fighters - who have been forced out of major northern towns such as Gao and Timbuktu - would return to tackle the Islamists.
"We will make war against the Islamists to the very last soldier. No matter how well they are armed, they are no match for our will," he said.
(Additional reporting by Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott; Editing by Louise Ireland and Pravin Char)