Tuareg separatists begin peace talks with Mali's central government on Wednesday in Algiers, in a bid to restore stability to the crisis-hit nation, which halted an Islamist advance on the capital with French help last year.
The armed Tuareg groups seeking independence for northern Mali now occupy nearly two-thirds of the country and will be arriving in Algiers to negotiate with the central government in Bamako from a "position of strength", an Algerian diplomat said.
"After the major defeat of the Malian army," which lost around 50 soldiers battling Tuaregs for control of the key town of Kidal in May, "the armed movements now occupy nearly two-thirds of the country ... and come to Algiers in a position of strength", the diplomat told journalists on Tuesday.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the diplomat said the parties needed to reach a power-sharing consensus between, "on the one hand, armed groups who want autonomy for northern Mali", and a government that is "open to any idea except independence".
An alliance of convenience between Islamist militants and Tuareg separatists seized control of Mali’s north in 2012, taking control of around half of the country's territory.
The Islamists later routed the Tuaregs and began an advance on the capital Bamako that prompted France to launch a military intervention to oust the Islamists in January 2013.
A year and a half later, the country remains mired in conflict despite high hopes for a return to democracy following a presidential election that brought Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to power last August and a parliamentary vote in December.
Three phases of negotiations
The Algiers meeting brings together the various warring factions for the first time since an interim agreement in June 2013 that paved the way for the nationwide elections.
The negotiations will take place in three phases, according to former prime minister Modibo Keita, the president's envoy at the talks, who shares a name with the Malian leader.
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The different sides will begin by thrashing out a "road map" for the negotiations before beginning the talks themselves and finally signing a "final peace agreement", he said.
Since President Keita came to power last year negotiations have stalled, and northern Mali has seen a spike in violence by Islamist and Tuareg separatist militants.
Earlier on Tuesday, Tuareg rebels and the Malian government exchanged dozens of prisoners in a goodwill gesture ahead of the peace talks.
Forty-five Malian soldiers and police, captured during clashes at the end of May in the West African nation's restive northeast, arrived at Bamako airport.
They were exchanged for 41 militants captured during patrols of the north by security forces, with the rebels due to be to returned to their homeland in northern Mali, referred to by the Tuaregs as "Azawad".
France to launch Sahel operations
The diplomat said that Mali simply lacks the resources to bring peace to its restive north.
Mali is "one of the 10 least-developed countries in the world ... and does not have the means" to survey and patrol the vast northern territory that borders southern Algeria, the diplomat said.
France last week announced plans to expand operations for its 1,700-strong Mali force to the larger Sahel region.
Under the new plan, some 3,000 French troops will operate out of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad with the aim of stamping out the pervasive Islamist threat to the region.
France and other Western powers fear the Islamists could further destabilise the region and use their stronghold in Mali as a launch pad for planning attacks abroad.
Operation "Barkhane", named after a crescent-shaped sand dune created by the desert winds, will be based in Chad but will receive logistical support from bases in
Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gabon.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is due to visit Mali later this week. President François Hollande is expected to make a concurrent tour of West Africa, including visits to the Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-07-16