Mali's Tuareg rebels soften separatist stance

OUAGADOUGOU Sun Oct 7, 2012 3:57pm EDT

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OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - Mali's main Tuareg rebel group said on Sunday it was no longer seeking to carve out a sovereign desert homeland, softening its stance as it seeks Western support to rout Islamists that have taken over the region.

In April the MNLA had declared an independent state in Mali's north called Azawad, days after a coup in Mali's southern capital Bamako, but Al Qaeda-linked Islamists later hijacked the rebellion and took control of the vast territory.

Western and regional powers are now mulling military intervention to retake the zone amid fears an Islamist safe haven could destabilize the region, and MNLA is aggressively seeking backing for a role in the effort.

"We declare a right to self-determination, but that doesn't mean secession," said Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, an MNLA official, following a meeting with regional mediator and Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore in Ouagadougou.

"As for independence, that's our objective. But independence doesn't solely mean territorial independence," he said at a press conference. "It is the right to life, to health care, to education, a political voice and freedom of expression."

Mali's Tuaregs have for years complained they are being neglected by the central government in Bamako, and in January the MNLA launched a rebellion bolstered by fighters and weapons spilling out from the civil war in Libya.

Their claims of an independent Azawad were widely rejected internationally and later fell apart after Islamist groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA, seeking to impose a strict version of Islamic law in Mali, pushed MNLA to the sidelines.

The MNLA said last month in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that any concerted international military effort to fight the Islamists now controlling northern Mali must involve them, or will be doomed to fail.

But the group's influence has waned, and foreign powers and many Malians blame it for plunging the country into crisis.

Foreign powers are also split over whether Mali should hold elections before a military intervention, amid concerns the current post-coup transitional government and military leadership will be unable to manage the effort. (Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Will Waterman)

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