Voice of America (Washington, DC)

Mali: Government Meets Rebels

It has been a week since the Malian government and rebel groups in the north agreed to a ceasefire following heavy fighting in the far northern town of Kidal. The two sides met in Burkina Faso's capital late Thursday in what many hope will be a first step toward getting the peace process back on track.

The Malian government requested the meeting Thursday. The MNLA agreed to meet with a senior representative for Mali's president in Ouagadougou in the presence of the regional mediator.

The talks were preliminary, aimed at testing the waters just more than a week after a failed Malian military offensive against the rebel fiefdom of Kidal.

The MNLA had seized the governor's building there in fighting earlier this month. The MNLA, alongside other armed groups, pushed back the Malian army on May 21 and took control of several other northern towns.

At least one senior Malian military official has resigned over the defeat that killed 50 soldiers and resulted in about 50 soldiers and civil servants being taken prisoner.

Both sides agreed to a ceasefire. The question now is whether they can get to the table for definitive peace talks, something they failed to do last year as planned.

MNLA spokesman Moussa ag Attaher took part in Thursday's meeting in Ouagadougou. He said it was a "positive first step."

"We hope the unfortunate events in Kidal have shown the Malian government this policy of burying its head in the sand does not work anymore and that it is in their interest to respect their engagements, move toward lasting peace and respect the ceasefire," said ag Attaher.

The MNLA is the latest iteration of what have been decades of Tuareg separatist movements in the region.

Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita says he will not negotiate any form of autonomy for the region of Kidal.

Burkina Faso has been meditating talks between Mali and armed groups in the north since 2012. Burkinabe foreign affairs minister, Djibril Bassole, was at Thursday's meeting.

"It is now time for some concrete action to get peace talks organized, starting, with some 'shows of good faith.' The liberation of prisoners was brought up Thursday though no decision was made. An exchange of prisoners, though not those accused of war crimes, would be an important step toward building trust and calming tensions," said Bassole.

The MNLA says it is ready to release the prisoners it took during hostilities this month on the condition that Mali liberate those it has detained on suspicion of being with the MNLA. The MNLA says those people are just "peasants" and "shepherds. The Malian government says they are rebel combatants.

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