BAMAKO Tuareg-led Mali rebels who seized the north of the West African country in April declared on Sunday they had dropped claims for a separate state after the rebellion was hijacked by al Qaeda-linked Islamists now holding sway in the north.
"We are seeking cultural, political and economic independence but not secession," Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, a senior member of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), told Reuters by telephone.
Azawad is the name which the MNLA gives to the northern territory of Mali in which it declared an independence that has been ignored by a world more concerned with the threat of Mali become a launchpad for jihadi activities.
A second MNLA official, Hama Ag Mahmoud, told Reuters in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott: "Independence has been our line since the start of the conflict but we are taking on board the view of the international community to resolve this crisis."
Islamist groups including the local Ansar Dine have imposed strict sharia, Islamic law, across the north and destroyed UNESCO-listed shrines to local saints in the ancient town of Timbuktu, arguing that such worship is un-Islamic.
Contacted by telephone in Timbuktu, Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumana said he was not aware of any change in the MNLA position but added: "What I can tell you is that it is us who control the three regions of the north."
(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; Mark John in Dakar; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Alison Williams)