Initial talks with Mali rebels may begin next week: PM

PARIS Fri Feb 7, 2014 1:16pm EST

Chadian U.N. peacekeepers gesture as they patrol during a ceremony marking two years since Malian soldiers were killed in a massacre by radical Islamists, in Aguelhok, Mali January 24, 2014. Picture taken January 24, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

Chadian U.N. peacekeepers gesture as they patrol during a ceremony marking two years since Malian soldiers were killed in a massacre by radical Islamists, in Aguelhok, Mali January 24, 2014. Picture taken January 24, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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PARIS (Reuters) - Mali's prime minister said on Friday he could begin initial talks as early as next week to try and end recurrent revolts by mainly Tuareg rebels trying to carve out an independent state in the desert north.

The West African country descended into turmoil in 2012 when Tuareg separatists, alongside Islamist fighters linked to al Qaeda, took advantage of the chaos after a coup to seize control of the north of the country.

French troops drove out the Islamists last year, elections were held and a U.N. peacekeeping mission is rolling out.

But talks between Bamako and Tuareg and Arab rebels with political demands have stalled. The U.N. Security Council, which visited Mali this week, has warned that the failure to reach a deal risked radicalizing fighters and undoing security gains.

Speaking at a news conference in Paris, Prime Minister Oumar Tatam Ly said his country had handed a political roadmap to Security Council two days ago.

"We are determined to move forward and to increase the contacts with armed groups to make progress," Ly told reporters with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius.

Mali's new president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, was elected partly for his reputation for taking a firm stand against the rebels during previous uprisings, and he is under pressure not to make concessions to fighters most southern Malians blame for their country's implosion.

But Ly appeared to take a conciliatory stance and said three workshops could begin next week in the presence of U.N. peacekeepers with the armed groups and members of civil society organizations in the north.

"Things must move quickly. The situation is more open than in previous months even if there are still many hurdles," he said.

The sessions would center on learning the mistakes of previous failed peace talks, restoring rebel fighters to barracks and bringing administrative and social services back to the country's north.

The results of those workshops would then be used to create a reconciliation forum between the various groups and central government, said officials.

The Islamists occupied the desert north for most of the year until former colonial ruler France sent in troops, warning the zone had become a springboard for attacks across the region and in the West.

(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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