An Islamist group carrying out public executions and amputations in northern Mali said Tuesday that it rejects "all forms of extremism and terrorism" and called upon other armed organizations controlling the region, including a branch of al-Qaida, to engage in political talks with the government.
The turnabout was announced by a representative of an Ansar Dine delegation that has been holding talks for the last several days with mediators in the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso.
The meetings in Burkina Faso appear to be part of a new, regional attempt to set up negotiations to resolve the Mali crisis ahead of a possible military intervention that is expected to be led by African forces with logistical backing from the European Union and the United States. France is heading the international effort to plan the military campaign to end the occupation by Ansar Dine and other Islamists in Mali's north.
It was not immediately clear how Ansar Dine's declaration would affect its imposition of strict Islamic law in the northern Mali territory under its control. Nor was it clear whether the delegation in Ouagadougou represents all elements within Ansar Dine, which has links to the al-Qaida terror network.
Representative Mohamed Aharid said Ansar Dine appeals to other "armed movements to cease hostilities and take steps to establish trust required for inclusive political talks," and said those negotiations should also include Algeria and other international community partners.
Ansar Dine affirms "its availability to immediately undertake a political dialogue process with transitional authorities in Mali with the view of reaching a cessation of hostilities, respect of basic rights and liberties and the return of displaced people and refugees ... and for the creation of a favorable environment for the adoption and implementation of a comprehensive peace agreement, dealing with all the underlying causes of the crisis."
Ansar Dine's declaration comes more than seven months after a military coup overthrew Mali's democratically elected president, creating a power vacuum that paved the way for Islamists to grab the north — an area the size of France.
Ansar Dine is one of three Islamist groups controlling Mali's north, and its members are believed to be mostly Malians. The membership of the two other groups, one of them al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, consists primarily of foreign fighters.
Although Ansar Dine has imposed strict Islamic law, including carrying out punishments such as amputating the hands of thieves and stoning to death a couple who had children out of wedlock, authorities believe the group is the most open to negotiation because its fighters are Malian nationals with ties to the area.
Alghabass Ag Intalla, the mediator sent on behalf of Ansar Dine, is the son of the traditional elder of the northern Malian city of Kidal.
In August, Burkinabe Foreign Affairs Minister Djibril Bassole traveled by helicopter to the main cities in northern Mali, including Kidal, to try to open talks. During his visit, the Burkina Faso envoy urged Ansar Dine to distance itself from other hardliners, fundamentalists and terrorists operating in the area.
Ansar Dine also is having consultations with Algeria, where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has its base and which shares a long border with Mali, according to an Algerian diplomatic official. The official stressed that the meetings are not negotiations but said that Algeria can serve as a "facilitator" to help resolve the Mali crisis. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named.