BAMAKO Mali's president asked a national congress on Monday to draw up plans for increased regional autonomy, a year after northern separatists and their Islamist allies seized two-thirds of the country, prompting France to send in troops.
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said northern Tuaregs had legitimate concerns that should be addressed but insisted that demands for independence were unacceptable.
"We must provide a definitive response to the frustrations that fuel the nationalist ambitions of our Tuareg brothers," Keita said, inaugurating a three-day conference on decentralization. "But Mali is indivisible."
The congress, a preliminary step before planned talks between the government and Tuareg separatist groups, will evaluate decentralization efforts undertaken since an earlier rebellion in 1990.
Under those reforms, Mali - which previously counted 19 administrative districts, known as communes - was divided into 703 communes. However, results were mixed.
Pro-government critics of the policy say decentralization further encouraged Tuareg ambitions of independence. Tuareg groups say the reforms did not go far enough.
"After diagnosing the difficulties encountered, it's up to you to form pertinent and apt recommendations to correct this dysfunction," Keita told the conference.
The French-led offensive launched in January succeeded in driving out al Qaeda-linked Islamist groups, but it did not target Tuareg MNLA rebels. Representatives from the MNLA were expected to attend the congress but were not present on the opening day.
Keita was elected in August after the MNLA allowed the elections to take place in its northern stronghold of Kidal in exchange for promises of talks to address its demands.
The MNLA has backed away from demands for an independent Tuareg homeland but maintains calls for increased autonomy.
Keita, who won office on promises to reunite the country, is under pressure to settle the Tuareg issue, but concessions to the rebels will be unpopular in the heavily populated south.
The fragile peace between the government and rebels has frayed since the elections. MNLA fighters clashed with government forces in Kidal late last month.
(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)