DAKAR The leader of a new armed group in Mali's troubled north said the central government in Bamako could face another uprising of his Tuareg people if it resists pressure to launch long-delayed talks on the region's future.
Mali exploded into violence when Tuareg separatist fighters tried to take over the north in early 2012. Islamist militants eventually occupied the region, triggering a French military intervention last year that drove most of the militants out.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, elected in August 2013, is now trying to rebuild Mali, a vast, landlocked former French colony of 16 million people, with the help of billions of dollars in Western aid.
But critics say Keita's election promise to build a strong, united Mali is being undermined by his failure to start talks with the Tuaregs, a nomadic people in the north who have rebelled four times since 1960.
The light-skinned Tuaregs say black African governments in Bamako have consistently excluded them from power.
"We would like to give talks a chance and we are asking Bamako to sit down at the negotiating table," Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh of the Coalition for the People of Azawad (CPA) told Reuters by telephone from Burkina Faso on Monday.
"If the Bamako government doesn't want to suffer from short-term memory, it should recall that we took up arms many times since 1963 because they didn't listen to us."
The U.N. Security Council has also warned of a radicalisation of fighters unless talks resume.
Ag Assaleh, a leading Tuareg negotiator for a peace accord sealed last June, launched the CPA this month after falling out with the main Tuareg separatist group behind the 2012 uprising, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
CPA members say their group is backed by 8,000 fighters but is less radical in its aims than MNLA and respects Mali's territorial unity. A membership list seen by Reuters showed it had created 30 official posts covering finances, refugees and human rights.
The CPA sent requests this month to the Bamako government to resume political talks via the U.N. mission in Mali (MINUSMA), s official mediator Burkina Faso and via Algeria, Ag Assaleh said.
"Direct negotiations are impossible. We need a third party to play the role of referee," he added.
A government spokesman declined to comment on the issue. MINUSMA was not immediately available for comment.
Mali blogger Thomas Miles said the CPA's overture would probably appeal to the government and could break the stalemate.
"I'm sure the government would be more than happy to make a deal with them (CPA)," he said. "But the real question is whether he (Ag Assaleh) has the backing of the Tuareg elites in places like Kidal," he said, referring to a Tuareg stronghold in northern Mali.
"If he doesn't, then he will remain marginal."
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako; Editing by Gareth Jones)