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Burkina Faso envoy, Mali Islamists in peace talks

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2012-08-07

Seeking a solution to a conflict that has split Mali in two, Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole met Tuesday with the al Qaeda-linked Islamist groups who took control of northern Mali in the aftermath of a March coup.

AFP - Burkina Faso's foreign minister, the highest-ranking diplomat to travel to Islamist-held northern Mali, met Tuesday with the Al Qaeda-linked groups who have effectively split the country in two.

Djibrill Bassole, whose president Blaise Compaore was appointed by the regional bloc as lead mediator in the Malian crisis, flew into Gao as part of a trip aimed at sounding out the chances of a peaceful solution.

He was welcomed at Gao airport by officials from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb offshoot that controls the city, as he stepped off his helicopter, according to an AFP reporter travelling with him.

Bassole is also expected in Kidal, the other key northern city -- together with Timbuktu -- that fell into Islamist hands in the aftermath of a short-lived March coup in Mali's southern capital Bamako.

The Burkinabe foreign minister, a seasoned diplomat who served as a chief United Nations-African Union mediator in Sudan's Darfur crisis, said before taking off in Ouagadougou that he was "carrying a message" for the Islamists.

Immediately after landing in Gao, Bassole visited the city's main hospital, where he met doctors and nurses.

"Thanks to the assistance of aid groups, we have enough medicine," chief doctor Moulate Guiteye told the regional envoy.

Surrounded by veiled nurses, the doctor explained however that the hospital had enlisted residents to help because several staff members had fled following the Islamist takeover.

The Islamists who piggy-backed and then snuffed out a military offensive by Tuareg separatists to seize control of northern Mali, an area larger than France or Texas, are enforcing Islamic law -- or sharia -- with varying degrees of strictness.

In the most gruesome such incident since Mali's de facto partition, an unmarried couple was stoned to death in front of a crowd by Islamist fighters in the small town of Aguelhok late last month.

Gao, a key hub in northern Mali, has shown some resistance to MUJAO's attempts to implement sharia, most recently when a spontaneous crowd prevented the militiamen from cutting off the hand of an alleged thief.

Bassole's unprecedented trip, under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), marks an attempt by the regional bloc to rekindle diplomatic efforts and avert a military intervention.

The conflict in northern Mali has displaced more than 400,000 people in a region already wracked by drought, half of which have fled across borders to rudimentary camps in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, some of the world's poorest nations.

The regional bloc has 3,300 standby troops ready to be sent to Mali, but is awaiting a formal request from a yet-to-be-formed unity government in Bamako and a mandate from the UN Security Council.

France has said an African military intervention was "desirable and inevitable" but Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the former colonial power would not take the lead.


Date created : 2012-08-07

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