* Ansar Dine faction says wants ceasefire, autonomy talks
* Burkina Faso contingent deploys in central Mali town
* Other African troops still arriving, logistics an issue
* AU leaders will discuss Mali deployment at weekend summit
By Richard Valdmanis and David Lewis
MARKALA, Mali/DAKAR, Jan 24 A split emerged on
Thursday in the alliance of Islamist militant groups occupying
northern Mali, as French and African troops prepared an
offensive aimed at driving them from their safe haven in the
A senior negotiator from the Ansar Dine rebels who helped
seize the north from Mali's government last year said he was now
part of a faction that wanted talks and rejected the group's
alliance with al Qaeda's North African franchise AQIM.
It was unclear how many fighters had joined the new Islamic
Movement of Azawad (MIA) faction. But the announcement will
encourage international negotiators who have long sought to
prise apart the Islamist alliance, seen as a major threat by
Washington and other Western and regional powers.
"There has to be a ceasefire so there can be talks,"
Alghabass Ag Intallah, an ethnic Tuareg, told Reuters from the
Ansar Dine stronghold of Kidal in northeast Mali. The new MIA
would focus its efforts on seeking autonomy for the northern
homeland of the desert Tuaregs, he said.
For nearly two weeks, French aircraft have bombarded rebel
positions, vehicles and stores in the centre and north of Mali
as a ground force of African troops assembles to launch a
U.N.-backed military intervention.
The strikes halted a rebel advance further south. French and
Malian ground troops have also retaken several towns after the
insurgents avoided a head-on fight, abandoning vehicles and
slipping away into the scrubland.
On Thursday, a Reuters correspondent saw around 160 troops
from Burkina Faso deployed in the dusty central Malian town of
Markala - the first West African troops to link up with French
and Malian forces. They replaced French soldiers protecting a
bridge over the Niger River.
Malian women pounding millet by the roadside stopped to wave
as French armoured vehicles, trucks and jeeps rumbled north from
Segou - some 30 km (20 miles) from from Markala - heading for
the town of Diabaly, recently recaptured from the rebels.
REPORTS OF REPRISAL KILLINGS
News of the French and African advances has been
overshadowed by allegations from residents and rights groups
that Malian government soldiers have executed Tuaregs and Arabs
accused of collaborating with the rebels.
Mali's army has denied the allegations but the reports of
killings of lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs by Mali's mostly
black army has raised the risk that the internationally-backed
intervention could trigger an ethnic bloodbath.
"These people took up arms against us, our colleagues were
killed ... I no longer have any Tuareg friends," one Malian
soldier, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Outside Diabaly, a town of mud-brick huts amid mango trees
surrounded by irrigation canals 350 km (220 miles) north of the
capital Bamako, Malian army soldiers captured a group of
suspected Islamists found hiding in a local house, said a Malian
officer, Captain Samasa, who only gave his first name.
The captives were taken away in a truck, witnesses said.
Mali's top Muslim leader accused foreign Islamists in the
north of trying to impose an alien version of Islam on a country
that had been Muslim for a millennium.
"What right do they have to impose the sharia (Islamic law)
here?" Imam Mahmoud Dicko, head of the High Islamic Council in
Bamako, asked in an interview in the French Catholic daily La
The rebels have destroyed historic Muslim shrines, which
they considered heretical, and imposed harsh punishments that
they say sharia demands such as stoning adulterers to death and
chopping off thieves' hands.
CALL FOR U.N. PEACEKEEPERS
The Islamist alliance in the north holds the major towns of
Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. It groups AQIM, Ansar Dine and AQIM
splinter MUJWA, and the numbers of its fighters are estimated at
Fears that it could pose a threat to African neighbours and
Western powers increased sharply last week when al Qaeda-linked
guerrillas opposing the French-led military intervention in Mali
briefly seized a gas plant in neighbouring Algeria. At least 37
foreign hostages were killed in the incident which ended when
Algerian forces stormed the facility.
Reflecting the wider security worries, France has ordered
special forces to protect uranium sites run by French company
Areva in Mali's neighbour Niger, which supplies fuel
for the French nuclear power industry.
There are concerns too that the intervention in Mali could
force the Islamist rebels across desert borders, destabilising
neighbours. A Libyan minister said U.N. peacekeepers should be
deployed after the initial offensive.
Military experts say a fast deployment of the African ground
force, expected to eventually number more than 5,000, is
essential to sustain the momentum of the French operations in
Mali. The operation will be high on the agenda of an African
Union summit in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa this weekend.
Most of the African troops for the Mali intervention are
coming from member countries of the West African regional
grouping ECOWAS, such as Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and
The deployment also includes soldiers from Chad who are
experienced in desert warfare. Burundi has also offered troops.
But there are questions over whether the African force has
the arms, equipment and training needed for a sustained campaign
in a desert and mountain battleground the size of Texas.
International donors are due to meet in Addis Ababa on Jan.
29 to discuss the African military operation, and France said
they would be asked for about 340 million euros ($452 million.
El-Ghassim Wane, director of the AU's Peace and Security
Council, said that besides the West, the AU was also looking for
financial and material support from China for the Mali
operation. China was already backing an African peacekeeping
operation in Somalia, he said.