By BRAHIMA OUEDRAOGO, Associated Press
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Representatives of an al-Qaida-linked group that controls northern Mali arrived on Saturday in Burkina Faso for talks with President Blaise Compaore, who is trying to mediate a solution to the conflict in the west African nation. A second delegation traveled to Algeria for talks with regional leaders there, officials said.
In Burkina Faso, the Malian government was also represented at the talks, indicating that the country's legitimate government is willing to negotiate with an armed group known to be in lockstep with the terror network's chapter in Africa.
The meetings appear to be part of a new, regional attempt to set up negotiations to resolve the Mali crisis ahead of a possible military intervention that is expected to be led by African forces with logistical backing from the European Union and the United States. France is heading the international effort to plan the military campaign to end the Islamists' occupation.
Alghabass Ag Intalla, a top official of the radical Islamist group Ansar Dine, told The Associated Press that he is in Ouagadougou as the head of a delegation meeting with Compaore, who has been appointed by the Economic Community of West African States to mediate in the Mali crisis.
Ansar Dine is one of three Islamist groups controlling Mali's north, an area the size of France, and its members are believed to be mostly Malians. The membership of the two other groups, one of them al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, consists primarily of foreign fighters.
Although Ansar Dine has imposed strict Islamic law, including carrying out punishments such as amputating the hands of thieves and stoning to death a couple who had children out of wedlock, authorities believe the group is the most open to negotiation because its fighters are Malian nationals with ties to the area.
"All the international instruments have been put in place (to deal with this crisis)," Mali's Minister of Foreign Affairs Tieman Coulibaly told reporters after arriving in Ouagadougou. "And we are now weighing the options — either negotiations or military intervention in order to liberate northern Mali."
Burkina Faso's Foreign Affairs Minister Djibril Bassole told reporters, however, that the negotiations with Ansar Dine do not preclude the use of force. "In any case, the negotiations we are trying to foster does not in any way present an obstacle to the use of force ... as we will need to use force in order to stamp out the terrorists that have taken over this territory," he said.
Intalla, the mediator sent on behalf of Ansar Dine, is the son of the traditional elder of the northern Malian city of Kidal.
The Intalla family has longstanding roots in Mali, owning property and land, and the elder Intalla is deeply respected. Because of his reputation, during past conflicts in Kidal, people have often taken refuge inside the Intalla family compound, knowing that no one will dare attack it. Authorities hope the elder Intalla, who unlike his son is not believed to have any direct role in Ansar Dine, can help persuade the group to negotiate.
In August, Bassole traveled by helicopter to the main cities in northern Mali, including Kidal, to try to open talks. During his visit, the Burkina Faso envoy urged Ansar Dine to distance itself from other hardliners, fundamentalists and terrorist groups operating in the area.
Ansar Dine also is having consultations with Algeria, where Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has its base and which shares a long border with Mali, according to an Algerian diplomatic official. The official stressed that the meetings are not negotiations but said that Algeria can serve as a "facilitator" to help resolve the Mali crisis. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met recently with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a discussion about Mali. Algeria had been dragging its feet on the question of an intervention in Mali by African nations.
Associated Press writer Aomar Ouali contributed to this report from Algiers. Rukmini Callimachi contributed from Mao, Chad.