Mali militants say they are open to talks if foreign troops leave

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BAMAKO (Reuters) - Al Qaeda-linked militants have said they will only attend peace talks with Mali’s government if it expels French and United Nations forces.

There was no immediate response from the government which has been proposing talks in recent weeks to try and end an insurgency that has spread violence across the West African state and its neighbors.

But Malian authorities have repeatedly said they want French forces to stay, and France has promised to boost its military presence in the Sahel region.

Attacks by groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger killed hundreds of civilians last year, and stoked even deadlier ethnically-charged reprisals.

The bloodshed has worsened despite the presence of more than 11,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Mali and around 5,000 French troops across the region.

“There can be no talking about negotiations under the shade of occupation, before the departure of all French forces and their followers from Mali,” al Qaeda-linked Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) said in a statement issued on social media on Sunday.

JNIM also called on the U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSMA to leave, saying it was echoing the demands of Malian protesters, some of whom have called on foreign troops to withdraw.

Mali has been in chaos since 2012 when jihadist fighters hijacked an insurrection by Tuareg separatists to seize Mali’s entire desert north. They were forced back by an intervention led by Mali’s former colonial ruler France the following year.

The militants have since reconstituted and extended their range of influence, striking hotels and restaurants in regional capitals and terrorizing villages in the hinterlands, where nearly 1 million people have fled their homes.

Reporting by Paul Lorgerie in Bamako and Kissima Diagana in Nouakchott; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Edward McAllister and Andrew Heavens