Mali’s putschists and politicians called on Sunday for talks with rebels holding the north of the country, as Islamists holding key towns there signaled they were ready to open a dialogue.
The announcement came as military officers behind last month’s coup and the country’s politicians haggled over the details of the return to democracy at talks in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso.
Ansar Dine, which is backed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb and which wants Shariah law imposed across Mali, said it was open to negotiations with Bamako, but warned against Western interference.
“We are available to talk about the future with Bamako,” Oumar Ag Mohamed, a source close to the Islamist group’s chief Iyad Ag Ghaly said. “Between Muslim brothers, we can get along, but non-Muslims must not meddle in our problems.”
Soon after, a joint statement from the officers behind last month’s military coup in Mali and politicians urged the transitional authority overseeing the return to democracy to open talks with the rebels holding the north.
Mohamed’s comments came after Malian envoy Tibile Drame said there was a “basis for dialogue” with the Islamist group that had seized the north along with Tuareg rebels, but which opposes their separatist ambitions.
Meanwhile, underlining the continued dangers on the ground in Mali, a Swiss woman was abducted on Sunday in the rebel-held northern city of Timbuktu, now controlled by Islamist fighters, a local official said.
Sources described “Beatrice” as a Christian woman in her 40s, very active in the local community, who had lived for years in the city.
Impoverished Mali was plunged into crisis when a group of low-ranking army officers launched a coup that toppled Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure on March 22.
Coup leaders justified their action by denouncing the government’s ineffective resistance to a Tuareg rebellion, which was rekindled in January.
However, the rebels, together with Islamists, took advantage of the disarray in Bamako to seize the north, capturing an area roughly the size of France, including the ancient town of Timbuktu.
The main Tuareg rebel group, Azawad National Liberation Movement, has declared an independent state, drawing international condemnation.
In Ouagadougou, West African bloc ECOWAS brokered talks on Sunday aimed at ending the crisis in the north, as well as charting the country’s return to democracy. Burkinan President Blaise Compaore mediated the talks.
A new prime minister was expected to be named yesterday or today, sources said, with the make-up of the government decided later this week.
The sources close to the negotiations said three names were in the frame for the prime minister’s job: Soumana Sacko, who served as interim-prime minister in 1991-1992, Michel Sidibe, UN under-secretary-general and director of the UN AIDS program; and Dialla Konate, an academic working in the US.
However, the length of the transition period led by interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore, who took office on Thursday last week, was proving to be a key stumbling block.
Under the constitution, an interim presidency should only last 40 days, but a transition deal reached with ECOWAS mediators recognized it could take longer to organize new elections and return Mali to constitutional rule.
Supporters of the coup leaders want the putschists returned to power after Traore’s 40-day interim.