Islamist Mali rebels Ansar Dine urge dialogue
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Ansar Dine, an Islamist group occupying northern Mali, called for dialogue Tuesday as it faced the prospect of a violent ouster by interstate troops, dispatching envoys to Burkina Faso and Algeria in a bid to negotiate an end to the crisis.
Ansar Dine, an Islamist group occupying northern Mali, called Tuesday for other fighters to join them in political dialogue, as military chiefs plot strategies to expel the extremists using force.
As diplomatic efforts for a military solution to the seven-month occupation of Mali's vast arid north intensify, Ansar Dine has dispatched envoys to Burkina Faso and Algeria in a bid to negotiate an end to the crisis.
After meeting with chief regional mediator, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the Ansar Dine delegation urged "all the armed movements" to imitate it with the aim of establishing "an inclusive political dialogue."
In a declaration read by envoy Mohamed Aharid, they called for "a total halt to hostilities, the respect of fundamental rights and freedoms, the return of all displaced people and refugees and the creation of an environment conducive to adopting and implementing a full peace agreement that addresses all the deep causes of the crisis."
Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith, in Arabic) along with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have implemented an extreme form of sharia in the cities they control, stoning, whipping and amputating transgressors.
Ansar Dine has also destroyed centuries-old cultural treasures in the fabled city of Timbuktu which they denounced as "idolatrous" to their radical brand of Islam.
Mediators have approached talks with the hope Ansar Dine will cut ties with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) whose alliance with the Islamists has triggered fears in the region and among Western powers that the zone could become a new haven for terrorists.
Mali, once one of the region's most stable democracies, rapidly imploded after a Tuareg rebellion for independence began in January and overwhelmed the state's poorly equipped army.
Angry over the government's handling of the crisis, soldiers staged a coup in March, which only made it easier for the rebels to seize a string of desert towns.
The secular separatists were quickly sidelined by Islamists fighting on their flanks who had little interest in their aspirations for an independent homeland and set about implementing strict sharia law.
In recent weeks Western powers have thrown their support behind a planned military intervention and last week experts met in the Malian capital to drawn up a strategy to oust the Ismalists.
ECOWAS military bosses need to approve the details, before sending the plan onto regional heads of state and finally, the United Nations Security Council on November 26.
"It is about coming to a rapid agreement on an operational concept to help Mali quickly reconquer its north," said Ivory Coast's army chief General Soumaila Bakayoko.
The United Nations wants clarification on the makeup of a regional force, the level of participation from various west African states, and the financing and military means available.
Facing a violent ouster, Ansar Dine also declared its "availability to immediately engage in a process of political dialogue with the Malian transitional authorities."
"Ansar Dine rejects all forms of extremism and terrorism and is committed to fighting cross-border organised crime," it added.
The Islamist group also has a delegation in Algiers, where European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Tuesday suggested sending a European "support mission" to Bamako.
Last week US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the regional heavyweight to lobby for support in ousting the extremists from Mali.
Algeria, with its superior military capabilities and its 1,400 kilometre border with Mali, is seen as key to any military operation but has been hesitant to get involved, preferring a negotiated solution.
It is expected that up to 4,000 African troops could be sent to Mali, regional experts have said, without ruling out the possibility of non-African troops taking part in the military operation.
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