France urges talks with Mali rebels, unity against al Qaeda

PARIS Thu Apr 5, 2012 8:26am EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Thursday there could only be a resolution to the Tuareg-led rebellion in the north of Mali through a political dialogue and urged regional cooperation to fight al Qaeda's expansion in the area.

For long one of the most stable democracies in West Africa, Mali has plunged into turmoil since a widely condemned coup on March 22 that emboldened Tuareg rebels to seize half the country in their quest for a northern homeland.

"There will not be a military solution with the Tuaregs. There needs to be a political solution," Juppe said, adding that countries in the region had to begin talks to accomplish this.

Mali's MNLA separatist rebels said they had ended their fight to create an "Azawad" state on the edge of the Sahara on Thursday after achieving their goal, according the group's website.

The rebels, battling alongside Islamist militants who want to impose sharia, or Islamic law, swept through northern Mali last week, pushing government forces from Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the three northern regions of Mali that the MNLA says will form the new state.

Juppe said Paris was in contact with the various players in Mali, including the MNLA, which he said was a credible interlocutor. He said there was clear distinction between that group which was seeking independence and the Ansar Dine Islamists, who had been "infiltrated" by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

"They have another objective which is to establish an Islamist regime in Mali and the Sahel as a whole," Juppe said. "I don't see how we could have dialogue with AQIM whose objective is to kill our citizens."

HOSTAGES

France, the former colonial ruler, is Mali's fourth-largest donor of aid - a vital source of income in one of the world's poorest countries - and it also trains and equips government forces. Since the rebellion, it has suspended its cooperation, but has maintained aid to the population.

It has advised its 5,000 citizens living in the West African state to leave. The escalating crisis also worries Paris given that AQIM is holding six French hostages in the region.

Before the coup, West African leaders had been considering sending a force to help Mali secure its north, where rebels, Islamists and smugglers have long mixed.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is still looking at military plans after imposing sanctions on Mali, but officials say the junta would have to stand down before outsiders would help Bamako.

"First and foremost we want regional cooperation between Algeria, ECOWAS countries, Nigeria, Mauritania, etc. to put a strategy to fight the terrorism threat in the Sahel," Juppe said.

The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday also threw its support behind efforts by ECOWAS to restore order in Mali.

Juppe said he believed a mediation effort to restore constitutional order and remove the junta led by Burkina Faso President Blaise Compoare was beginning to get results.

He said it could take time for ECOWAS to deploy 3,000 troops in Mali, so France would be ready to provide logistical support, although he ruled out direct military intervention.

"I don't think French troops would be welcomed either by Algeria or anybody else. The answer must first come from regional states," he said.

(Reporting by John Irish and Catherine Bremer; Editing by Alison Williams)

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