BAMAKO Burkina Faso, which is attempting to mediate an end to the crisis in its West African neighbour Mali, on Saturday called upon Malian President Dioncounda Traore to open direct talks with Islamist fighters in control of the country's north.
Military experts from Africa, the United Nations and Europe have drafted plans to retake control of northern Mali, which fell to rebels in March after a coup in the capital Bamako created a power vacuum.
Mali's neighbours fear the instability could spill over its borders, and the United States and European countries fear the vast and loosely governed Sahel region may become a new base for terrorist groups including al Qaeda. However any military intervention will not be ready until some time next year.
In the meantime Burkina's President Blaise Compaore has hosted talks with the secular Tuareg independence group MNLA and al Qaeda-linked Islamists Ansar Dine in an attempt to seek a non-violent resolution to the conflict.
"President Blaise Compaore would like Mali's head of state to designate a delegation that could open preliminary consultations and preliminary exchanges with these armed groups," Burkina's Foreign Minister Djibril Bassolet said.
Speaking on national radio, he said initial contacts should determine the practical details of eventual negotiations.
"These exchanges will already help us to promote the kind of dialogue that is so necessary," Bassolet said.
Mali's president announced in July that a special commission would be established charged with negotiating with northern groups, but many in the government-held south are against talks and political infighting has delayed the commission's creation.
In a statement on Saturday, Traore said consultations would take place on December 11-13 to finally set up a national transitional committee and negotiations commission.
Burkina Faso is calling for groups that come to a negotiated deal to be spared from the planned African offensive.
The MNLA declared an independent Tuareg homeland in April after routing government troops in the wake of the March coup, but it has since lost control of the zone to Islamists and criminal networks.
The MNLA last week clashed with Islamist fighters from MUJWA, another northern rebel group with links to al Qaeda, in the first bout of fighting between them since the Islamists drove the MNLA out of the regional capital Gao in June.
Earlier this week, MUJWA drove the MNLA out of the town of Menaka, near the border with Niger.
MUJWA and AQIM - al Qaeda's North African wing which it operates alongside - are not being considered for talks.
(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Jon Hemming)