ALGIERS Mali's government and rebels held peace talks in Algiers on Wednesday in an effort to end decades of uprisings by northern tribes, though the government said at the start it would refuse to discuss any demands for full autonomy.
Mali's vast desert north - called Azawad by the Tuareg and Arab rebels - has risen up four times in the last 50 years, with different groups fighting for independence or differing levels of self-rule.
Violence has continued to break out in the West African country since troops from its former colonial ruler France intervened last year to drive back Islamists who had taken advantage of the latest Tuareg-led rebellion.
The light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs perennially accuse black African governments in the capital Bamako of excluding them from power.
France and other Western and regional powers, who have been pushing the talks, fear al Qaeda-linked fighters could again take advantage of the turmoil in the remote territory to set up strongholds and destabilise the region and beyond. "We are not willing to discuss independence, we are not willing to discuss autonomy," Mali's Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told Reuters on the sidelines of the talks. "But within that framework we are available and ready to engage with our brothers and sisters of the north to make sure we could reach an some agreement or find the best form of administrative organisation."
Bamako was open to talks on devolving more power to give the northern region more say in local government, he added, describing rebel statements so far as "constructive".
Three main rebel groups - the Tuareg MNLA and High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), as well as the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) - have sought to unify their positions, but there are divisions within the different Tuareg factions and between Tuareg and Arab separatist groups.
"We are here to construct a roadmap and launch a profound dialogue," rebel negotiator Mahamadou Djeri Maiga told reporters. "We have accepted the integrity of Mali. We are also for a secure state. We must build a new Mali."
Algeria's government said it had helped broker a prisoner swap to build confidence at the start of the talks - 45 civilians and troops from the government in exchange for 42 members and sympathisers of rebel movements.
DIVISIONS AMONG REBELS
Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected last year partly for his reputation for taking a firm stand against previous uprisings, and is under pressure from the more densely populated south not to give in to rebel demands.
But the army's inability to defeat rebel forces has severely undermined Bamako's position. The U.N. Security Council has warned that failure to hold inclusive talks could further radicalise rebel fighters.
Talks advanced in June after a preliminary accord. But analysts said the rebels had to make concrete, coherent proposals and overcome splits in their ranks.
Andrew Lebovich, a New York-based researcher and analyst on the Sahel region, said an agreement was possible in Algiers, but a deal signed outside Mali would not necessarily carry weight with the diverse and fragmented fighters on the ground.
"An agreement is only one step in a much longer process, and a deal itself will not guarantee or even potentially lead to a resolution to the various conflicts in northern Mali," he said.
French troops were dispatched to Mali last year to force back al-Qaeda linked Islamist militants who occupied swathes of northern Mali.
Isolated attacks by Islamists have continued there despite the presence of thousands of French and U.N. peacekeepers. A French soldier was killed this week in the first suicide attack on French forces in Mali.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Heavens)