ALGIERS Algeria will hold exploratory talks with rebel groups from neighboring Mali in an attempt to revive peace negotiations there, it said on Sunday, an initiative welcomed by Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Mali exploded into violence when Tuareg separatist fighters tried to take over the north and Islamist militants eventually occupied the region, triggering a French military intervention last year.
Islamist militants have been mostly driven out, but since then reconciliation with the three main rebel groups has been an elusive challenge for Keita, after a June peace deal brokered by Burkina Faso.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, declared an end to a ceasefire late last year, saying Mali had not lived up to its end of the June peace accord, which called for the rebels to disarm.
"These are exploratory contacts to revive dialogue in Mali," Algeria's Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra told reporters of the communication with rebel leaders, not specifying which groups.
Keita was visiting Algiers to back the initiative, Mali Foreign Minister Ould Sidi Mohamed said.
"Everybody should applaud this process. We want to make peace in Mali inclusive," Mohamed said.
He added that Algeria's efforts were not in competition with peace deals brokered by Burkina Faso.
"We welcome any initiative that helps boost peace," he said. "There is perfect understanding between Algeria and Mali on what to do to address common challenges for security and regional cooperation."
Three main rebel groups in Mali - the MNLA, the fellow Tuareg movement, High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) - announced in November they would merge to form a united front.
But there are signs of distrust within those rebel organizations that have complicated peace negotiations.
The vast desert region has erupted into rebellion four times since independence from France in 1960. Its light-skinned Tuareg people say black African governments in the capital Bamako have excluded them from power.
Neighboring Algeria, which itself suffered a civil war with armed Islamists in the 1990s that killed around 200,000 people, had pushed for a political solution in Mali, worried about militants spilling across the border into its south.
(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Mike Collett-White)