West Africa's mediator for Mali has begun talks with the Islamist and Tuareg rebel groups who seized the north of the country after a coup in March, officials said yesterday.
The mediator, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, "has begun consultations with the different armed groups with a view to lay out an agenda to get out of the crisis in northern Mali," Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole told a press conference.
The aim of the talks is to "reach as soon as possible a deal between the transitional government and the armed groups that will preserve the territorial integrity of Mali, security and human rights," he said.
"The consultations are proceeding with extreme caution because of the strong rivalries that pit the armed groups against each other."
Compaore was appointed mediator in the Mali crisis by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) following the March 22 coup.
Ministers from the regional bloc are due to hold new talks on Mali and Guinea-Bissau.
Contacts have been established with the main ethnic Tuareg rebel group MNLA, the Islamist Ansar Dine group as well as the Mujao group that presents itself as a splinter group of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), a source close to the Burkina Faso president's office told AFP.
The groups took advantage of the power vacuum created by the mid-level army officers' coup to capture the vast desert north of the country, but have very different goals, with the Tuaregs demanding independence and the Islamists pushing to impose Sharia law.
Compaore recently sent an envoy to northern Mali to open communications with the groups, said a source close to the mediation.
Supporters and foes of the coup meanwhile gathered for a forum on the turmoil in the north. "In spite of the institutional crisis, in spite of the partition of the country, we must not give in to defeatism, we must not give up," said the leader of the Party for a National Renaissance (Parena), Tiebile Drame.
The forum, organised by Parena, gathered members of political parties and civic associations, elected politicians and invited foreign guests, with the aim of finding solutions to the crisis. In his letter of invitation to the forum, Drame said that the coup had "sped up the partition of the country, of which two-thirds are now occupied by various rebel groups, both Malian and foreign, which are imposing their laws on our people."
The forum took place against the backdrop of a total political impasse. Ecowas mediators planned for the transitional government that took over from the junta to hold power for 12 months.
But the coup leaders, who retain strong influence in Bamako even after handing power back to civilians, refuse to see interim president Dioncounda Traore, sworn in on April 12, stay in office more than 40 days, beyond May 22.
Bassole, the Burkina Faso foreign minister, said mediators would re-open talks at the weekend with the coup leaders. Mediators have recommended the Malian government take the question of the length of the transition to the constitutional court, he said.
"We shouldn't bring the house down at the end of 40 days," he said.
Ecowas repeated yesterday its threat of targeted sanctions against the leaders of the coup for disrupting the transition process.
Ministers from the regional bloc are due to hold new talks on Mali and Guinea-Bissau, also struggling to restore order after an April 12 coup, in Abidjan tomorrow.