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Mali should start talks with Islamist groups - peace conference

A Malian soldier stands guard next to Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's portrait at the international conference center of Bamako ahead of France-Africa summit in Bamako, Mali, January 12, 2017. REUTERS/ Luc Gnago

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali’s government should start talks with the leaders of two Islamist groups that have staged deadly attacks on Malian and French soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers, a peace conference said on Sunday.

The week-long conference held under the auspices of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita urged talks with Amadou Koufa, leader of the Macina Liberation Front, a Fulani jihadist group, and Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of Islamist group Ansar Dine.

The two groups are allies and Ansar Dine said in January it would join al-Mourabitoun, led by Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, which claimed a suicide attack on a military camp in northern Mali that month that killed up to 60 people.

The conference said authorities should: “Negotiate with the belligerents of central Mali, in this case Amadou Koufa, while preserving the secular nature of the state .... Negotiate with the religious extremists of the north, in this case Iyad Ag Ghali.”

The talks were aimed at reviving implementation of a peace accord signed in 2015 that has been riven by quarrelling, while jihadists including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have exploited the security vacuum to step up attacks.

The accord was meant to draw a line under a separatist conflict that pitted nomadic Tuaregs in the desert north against a government seated in the south that has destabilized Mali. Tuaregs and jihadists took over northern Mali in 2012 before French forces intervened to push them back in 2013.

Despite continued French troop deployments, a U.N. peacekeeping mission and years of peace talks, Mali remains beset by banditry, unrest and ethnic strife.

Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Sandra Maler