Algiers and Jemal Oumar in Nouakchott — Negotiations kicked off in Algiers on Wednesday (July 16th) between the Malian government and representatives of Touareg and Arab separatists to end years of armed conflict.
Before the start of talks, the two sides agreed to swap prisoners in a goodwill gesture brokered by Algeria.
"It's not time for escalation, but for calm," Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said before the start of talks. He referred to the Algeria-brokered prisoner exchange as a deal that would help build trust between all parties.
Meanwhile, he expressed his hope that the Malian parties would reach a "balanced, permanent solution that meets everyone's aspirations".
A government delegation led by Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop and representatives of six northern Mali armed groups, including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), are taking part in the talks.
Diplomats from Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other international bodies are also attending the discussions.
Meanwhile, groups that allied with radical Islamists and occupied northern Mali before being pushed out in an international military intervention in January 2013 have been excluded.
In his opening speech, Malian Foreign Minister Diop said that the Bamako government was "prepared to go as far as it takes, but without crossing red lines". He added that those red lines were "respect of Mali's territorial integrity and its national unity and the republican nature of the Malian state".
For his part, MNLA representative Bilel Ag Cherif said that northern Mali movements were counting on the Algiers meeting to find a solution to the crisis and to restore security and stability to Sahel.
The MNLA representative confirmed that his group had abandoned their demand for independence and self-rule; a stance confirmed by three of the six movements that are taking part in the meeting.
Participants in the conference warned of threats facing Sahel countries if the Mali conflict continues.
The head of the Burkinabé delegation, Thomas Balé, said the crisis could no longer be dealt with in the framework of ECOWAS, noting the recent clashes between Touareg fighters and regular Malian forces almost undermined peace efforts. He stressed the need to work with all parties and to listen to their concerns so a final solution could be found.
Malians react to Algiers peace talks:
For their part, Malians from both the north and south expressed a yearning for a solution to the long-standing instability.
"I hope this page of armed conflicts with the Touaregs and Arabs in the north will be turned over so I can work as a teacher in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal without feeling any danger or alienation," Soumaila Sonogo, a teacher in Bamako, told Magharebia. "We're one people, and we have to get past historical differences in this time."
"People in the north must realise that they're a part of the Malian state," he continued. "At the same time, I demand the ruling authorities to make them feel that will meet some of their demands and pay more attention to their areas; we've become fed up with these disputes."
Bamako resident Abdel Karim Doucoura told Magharebia that these negotiations would "only be the start of the solution".
In his turn, spokesperson for Malian Touareg youths in Mauritania Mohamed Ag Ahmedu said, "Armed groups must feel reassured about each other in order to enable Algeria to play its role as it should as a mediator."
"I think these negotiations will eventually succeed this time because the armed groups are entering direct dialogue out of a position of strength with senior leaders from Bamako," he added.