OUAGADOUGOU Mali's government and the two rebel groups that took control of the northern half of the country in April, have met for the first time and agreed to negotiate an end to the crisis, a minister from mediator Burkina Faso said on Tuesday.
A delegation of Malian government officials met representatives of the separatist Tuareg MNLA, whose initial rebellion was hijacked by al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine. The Islamist militant group was also represented in the meeting in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou.
"The three delegations agreed on the need to create a framework for inter-Malian dialogue, which will be inclusive, and would involve representatives of the different communities living in northern Mali," Burkina Faso foreign minister Djibril Bassole, told journalists after the meeting.
A statement from the three parties after the meeting said the representatives agreed to end hostilities.
They also made a "commitment to (Mali's) national unity, territorial integrity, and a republican form of secularism as a prerequisite for the opening of the dialogue," it said.
Mali was plunged into crisis in March by a coup in the capital, Bamako, following a separatist insurgency in its desert north in January.
The MNLA took over northern Mali in April, bolstered by fighters and weapons from Libya's conflict, and their rebellion was commandeered by Islamists with links to al Qaeda who now control the north and plan to introduce sharia, or Islamic law.
Fearing attacks by militants in the region and beyond, world leaders had called on African nations to prepare a force to tackle the Islamists and overtures were also made to Malian Islamists and secular independence-seeking rebels in the hope the process would weaken the loose rebel alliance.
France has been the most vocal Western backer of possible plan for African troops to retake northern Mali. Seven French nationals are being held hostage in the desert region.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon however, said last week that a war plan drafted by African leaders was incomplete, leaving open questions about how the force would be commanded, trained and equipped.
Chadian president Idriss Deby, who is due to meet France's President Francois Hollande this week, said on Tuesday a unified approach was needed on the Mali crisis.
"Malians, Africans and the international community must speak in one voice," he said.
"The question of Mali will certainly be discussed with President Hollande. Time is on our side, we should act as soon as possible," Deby said after meeting with Malian Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra and President Boni Yayi of Benin which chairs the African Union.
(Reporting by Mathieu Bonkoungou; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Louise Ireland)