Magharebia (Washington DC)

West Africa: Ansar Al-Din Begins Peace Talks

Nouakchott — West African negotiators are meeting in Burkina Faso with Islamists from northern Mali.

In a move that could possibly forestall military intervention in Mali, Islamists and West African mediators met Sunday (November 4th) in Burkina Faso.

"Things went well," Ansar al-Din delegation chief Algabass Ag Intalla told AFP after meeting with Burkinabe Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole.

Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) top mediator for the Mali crisis, is also expected to hold talks with the Ansar al-Din envoys.

According to Bassole, Compaore will reiterate the ECOWAS demand that the Islamists "disengage from terror and organised crime" and "return to the political process".

The talks are widely viewed as a step towards resolving the Mali crisis and encouraging the Islamist group to sever ties with terrorists in Mali, namely al-Qaeda and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

ECOWAS has demanded that Ansar al-Din end "terror and organised crime" in the region, break ties with AQIM, MUJAO and other Islamist factions, and enter into a political dialogue to re-establish the unity of Mali.

But according to Ansar al-Din spokesman Sanad Ould Bouamama, other issues "must be subjects for dialogue, such as the right of citizens in northern Mali to development, to live with dignity and enjoy safety and stability".

The mediation talks should not focus on things "that have nothing to do with the existing crisis, such as the application of Sharia law", he said.

The Ouagadougou dialogue was not predicated on any promise by his group to end Sharia, accept secular rule and expel al-Qaeda, Ould Bouamama said.

"Our relation with them is like our relations with all other Muslims," he told Magharebia. "We won't expel them or ask them to leave because this is contrary to Muslims' behaviour."

The visit by the Ansar al-Din delegation to Burkina Faso coincides with an initiative launched last Wednesday in Abuja by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The plan announced in the Nigerian capital would "allow co-ordination between member states and civil society organisations to realise the group's desire to establish peace and security in all areas in West African countries," Sahara Media quoted ECOWAS political affairs chief Abdel-Fatau Musah as saying on November 1st.

"This is a parallel move to the military approach by ECOWAS and reflects the desire of member states to strengthen political and peaceful aspects to avoid wars, or at least give the voice of wisdom a chance to postpone any possible military action," Mauritanian journalist and political analyst Zain Al-Abidin Ould Mohamed said.

For his part, Mauritanian filmmaker Mohamed Idoumou commended the effort to strengthen the peace process in ECOWAS countries, but said that the initiative announced in Abuja must be expanded.

"One of the problems in African countries is the marginalisation of the vital role of civil forces and the focus on military aspects," he noted.

Civil society organisations play a major role, he said, "in putting a smile on the faces of victims of wars and conflicts".

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