Nouakchott — The prospect of military intervention in northern Mali has some extremist groups reconsidering their positions.
Ansar al-Din announced Wednesday (November 14th) that it was abandoning its goal of imposing Sharia law throughout Mali.
The Islamist group, which is currently holding negotiations with a representative of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Ouagadougou, also claimed that it was ending its harsh application of Sharia against northern Mali populations.
"Ansar al-Din announces its abandonment of its demand about applying the Islamic Sharia all over Mali, but will continue to impose it in Kidal province according to our own peculiarity," RFI cited Hamada Ag Bibi, a member of Ansar al-Din's negotiation delegation in the Burkinabe capital, as saying Wednesday (November 14th).
"In case negotiations with the Malian authorities make progress, we can then examine ways and mechanisms that will enable us to put an end to ties with terrorism, smuggling and foreign groups," he added.
Another leader of the group, Mohamed Ag Aharib, clarified the new stance, saying that Ansar al-Din would continue to apply Sharia all over Azawad, but in a less harsh way that takes into consideration local populations' choices.
According to analyst al-Mokhtar al-Salem, the move by Ansar al-Din on the application of Sharia was a positive indication and a sign that the group could make more concessions.
"There are several factors that made Ansar al-Din make these concessions, the most important of which is the increasing talk about the military resolution that the group is trying hard to avoid," he added. "The group leaders now understand that their interest lies in not swimming against the tide, and therefore, it wouldn't hurt them to make concessions that may guarantee them local, internationally-recognised interests, represented in governing their own areas but according to a system that takes into consideration the population's right to choose the system they like."
Many in northern Mali welcomed the news that Ansar al-Din was changing its tone on Sharia. In the past, the Islamist group has carried out public floggings and executions based on its own radical interpretation.
"We're relieved with this concession and see it as a step that will help enhance peace, given that population's will to choose what they like must be respected," said Atay Ag Mohamed, a media representative with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in Timbuktu.
"We hope that Ansar al-Din will follow on these decisions with other similar decisions, including the total and expressed break with the known terrorist groups," he told Magharebia.
The MNLA also announced it was willing to hold negotiations with Ansar al-Din in the coming days.
"We have taken into consideration this very positive and encouraging development," Moussa Ag al-Taher, MNLA diplomatic co-ordinator in Europe, told AFP. "Therefore, we will hold official talks with Ansar al-Din in the next days so that Azawad's forces may speak in one voice before going to political negotiations."
The National Front for the Liberation of Azawad (FNLA), which represents Timbuktu's Arabs, also praised Ansar al-Din's about-face.
"We, in our turn, welcome Ansar al-Din's position because it conforms to our position that rejects separation on the one hand and terrorism on the other," FNLA spokesperson Mohamed Mouloud Ramadhan told Magharebia. "This is an indication that everyone wants to see a peaceful, negotiated solution, and that we all have to proceed with that."
The shift in tone from Mali's Islamists comes as pressure builds for an international military force to retake the country's north. But both Ansar al-Din and the MNLA continue to favour a diplomatic approach.
MNLA Deputy Secretary-General Mohamed Lamine Ould Ahmed Lamine told Magharebia that the movement supported the on-going negotiations in the Burkinabe capital between ECOWAS and armed groups.
"The world's insistence on waging a war in northern Mali may lead to the unification of all groups in the area against the war," he said in a lengthy interview with Magharebia. "Therefore, such groups may fight against it."
He added that it was "too early" to decide on military intervention because diplomatic talks were continuing.
Nina Walet Ntalo, a minister in the MNLA's unrecognised Azawad government, echoed the sentiment. "We haven't so far expressed any position about adopting the military option against the terrorists. We're waiting for the results of current negotiations," she told Magharebia.