NOUAKCHOTT Mali's interim president is willing to open dialogue with Tuareg-led rebels and Islamists occupying the north of the West African country, but "armed foreign jihadist groups" among them should leave, a Malian envoy and mediator said on Sunday.
"We want to resolve the difficulties in the north of our country through dialogue and negotiation," Tiebile Drame, a prominent Malian politician and mediator for interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore, told Reuters in Nouakchott.
Malian envoys later met a separatist MNLA rebel delegation, which said further talks were possible and indicated that they would consider a form of federation within Mali rather than a new state, which has already been rejected by world leaders.
Mali has been divided in two since the rebels declared an independent Tuareg homeland in the north this month, following a March 22 military coup in the southern capital Bamako that led to the insurgents capturing key northern towns.
Drame, who opposed the Bamako coup, was accompanied by Mustapha Diko, an aide of Traore, who was sworn in on Thursday in a transition deal. Traore has vowed to restore Mali's territorial integrity, by military force if necessary.
The two envoys met Mauritanian President Mohamed Abdel Aziz to request his help in solving the Malian crisis. "We've come to look for credible interlocutors," Drame said.
While offering dialogue to the MNLA, Drame said the separatist Tuareg rebels should bear in mind that no foreign government nor international organization had recognized their declaration of an independent Azawad homeland in the north.
He recommended they withdraw this declaration of northern independence, saying this would "accelerate the dialogue that we want to have with them".
Speaking after a meeting with the delegation from Bamako, Hama Ag Mahmoud, a senior MNLA figure in Mauritania, said that the idea of a federation as well as an independent state would both be on the table in further talks.
"We would need guarantees from the international community on the implementation by both sides of any deal and that talks would be held by a legitimate government in Bamako," he said.
OCCUPIERS NOT LIBERATORS
Drame said the rebels' occupation of major northern towns like Timbuktu and Gao had created a "humanitarian crisis" and added many residents there saw them as occupiers not liberators.
He made clear that the offer of talks did not extend to what he called "armed foreign jihadist groups" which had taken advantage of the lightning MNLA rebel advance southwards to establish themselves deeper in Malian territory.
This was a clear reference to members of al Qaeda who have been using north Mali, a vast and rugged area bigger than France, as a base from which to seize and hold Western hostages.
"We want those who are not Malian to quickly leave ... because they've no reason to be on our soil," Drame said.
He said the authorities in southern Mali had also been in contact with another of the principal north Mali rebel groups, the Islamist Ansar Dine movement led by veteran Tuareg insurgent Iyad Ag Ghali, whom he said "we know well".
Ag Ghali, he said, recently freed 161 Malian army prisoners captured during the rebel advance. "I think there are objective conditions for a frank and sincere discussion," Drame said.
The declaration of a Tuareg rebel homeland in northern Mali has raised fears among Western security experts that the remote, inhospitable zone could become a secure haven for al Qaeda and a "rogue state" in West Africa.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday it was essential to prevent a "terrorist or Islamic state" emerging in northern Mali.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher and David Lewis)