Mali PM, northern armed groups prepare for peace talks

BAMAKO/DAKAR Tue Apr 29, 2014 12:02pm EDT

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BAMAKO/DAKAR (Reuters) - Mali's new prime minister pledged on Tuesday to revive long-delayed peace talks on the troubled north while armed groups from the region said they would hold a preparatory meeting with Algeria ahead of the negotiations.

Critics of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, in power since August, say he has missed a chance to build lasting peace with northern rebels by failing to honor a commitment to start talks with armed groups.

Some observers hoped a snap change in government on April 5, which saw the appointment of a new prime minister, would jumpstart negotiations - designed to end recurrent Tuareg revolts in the West African state's desert north.

"We will invite the armed groups and also legitimate representatives of the north so that any agreement has the best possible chance of being the last one concluded for northern Mali," said Prime Minister Moussa Mara in a speech before parliament outlining the government's priorities.

He did not give details of a timeframe for the talks.

Mali, a vast landlocked former French colony of 16 million in West Africa, descended into turmoil when Islamist fighters took advantage of a 2012 Tuareg-led rebellion and seized control of the country's north.

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

Separately on Tuesday, and in a break with custom, four armed groups from northern Mali released a combined statement in which they resolved to "harmonize" their political platforms.

A spokesman for the "movements of Azawad" - which refers to the land claimed by rebels in northern Mali - said the groups would hold a preparatory meeting with neighboring Algeria in either the southern town of Tamannarasset or capital Algiers.

Algeria acted as a mediator for a past Tuareg rebellion.

"We have solicited Algeria to facilitate a meeting with all the movements to harmonize our platform and form a bloc for the negotiations," Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoun said in an email to Reuters.

The statement of unity follows a rift in the Tuareg armed movement with the departure of prominent National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) member Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, who created a new splinter group in March.

Tensions have also been running high between the MNLA and President Keita who earlier this month accused the separatist group of seeking Russian arms during a visit to Moscow in March.

Meanwhile, isolated attacks by Islamists in northern Mali have continued despite the presence of thousands of French and U.N. peacekeepers. Four Malian soldiers were seriously injured after their vehicle ran over a mine near Ansongo in north Mali on Monday, a military source in Gao said on Tuesday.

A mine exploded in the town of Kidal last week, seriously injuring a U.N. peacekeeper but not affecting a delegation of visiting diplomats, a U.N. spokesman said.

(Reporting by Adama Diarra, Emma Farge and Tiemoko Diallo; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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