Ethnic Tuareg rebels have agreed to stop pursuing a separate state in Mali's north, while one of the extremist Islamist groups in the area has pledged to reject extremism and terrorism, according to a statement released by the various groups on Tuesday.
The concessions came during talks with Mali's government, and suggested progress in its effort to avoid a Western-backed military intervention. But it's unclear whether all the rebel factions in northern Mali — Islamist or ethnic Tuareg — will unite behind the pledges made during Tuesday's one-day session. Al-Qaida's North African branch was one group with a strong presence in Mali that was not even at the table.
The meeting, organized and held in Burkina Faso, succeeded in setting up a framework for future negotiations. The statement released afterward did not mention whether the Mali government made any promises or concessions of its own.
Mali, formerly a poor but stable nation, was thrown into turmoil after a March coup by disgruntled soldiers, who toppled the country's democratically elected leader. A mix of rebel groups took advantage of the power vacuum to seize a territory the size of France in the north.
The separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or NMLA, initially had the upper hand, and its members planted their multi-hued flag on government buildings announcing the creation of a new Tuareg country. But in June, just a few months after taking the north, the NMLA was chased out by three al-Qaida-linked Islamist groups which now control the north, including Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith."
Burkina's Foreign Affairs Minister Djibril Bassole told reporters Tuesday that all parties had agreed to respect Mali's national unity and its territorial integrity. That's an important concession for the NMLA, a group led by Tuareg fighters who embody the grievances of Mali's Tuareg minority, which has long felt marginalized by the country's rulers, all of whom came from the darker-skinned ethnicities dominant in the nation's south.
Still, Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, the vice president of the NMLA said the new position meant that the Tuaregs "have renounced independence, but not self-determination." That suggested the group would seek some level of independence from the central government.
Bassole further noted that all of the groups at the negotiating table have also agreed to "reject all forms of extremism and terrorism, and respect the Malian community."
Ansar Dine controls the towns of Kidal and Timbuktu in northern Mali, and its fighters have imposed a brutal form of Islamic law, stoning to death a couple accused of adultery and hacking off the hands of thieves. It's unclear how the group could stay true to the vision of Islam it has already articulated while also rejecting extremism.
Two other groups entrenched in the north were not represented at the talks: the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, and al-Qaida's North African branch, called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. By most accounts, MUJAO and AQIM are more powerful than either Ansar Dine or NMLA, and their absence at the talks begs the question of whether the negotiations will have any real impact.
The crisis in Mali has led to calls for an African-led intervention with Western support from nations such as France and the United States, though no Western troops are expected to be deployed. The African Union has approved a military plan, which calls for 3,300 African troops to be deployed to take back northern Mali. The plan is now with at the United Nations for vetting.
In a report earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that before a military action is launched, the focus must be on initiating a broad-based political dialogue and addressing the longstanding grievances of the Tuaregs. "The urgent need for progress on the political track cannot be overstated," Ban said.