Mali armed groups agree to begin peace talks
ALGIERS - Three armed groups from northern Mali announced in Algiers on Sunday that they have agreed to begin talks with the Bamako government aimed at resolving long-standing disputes.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) had signed the "Algiers Declaration" late Monday, demanding "inclusive" peace and political talks in their troubled country.
The top leaders of the MNLA and HCUA, formed by ethnic Tuareg who have since 1962 launched four uprisings to fight Mali's army over the territory they claim as their homeland and call Azawad, have been in the Algerian capital since June 5.
A ceasefire was signed with the Bamako government on May 23.
On Sunday, initial discussions were concluded with the three groups signing a preliminary accord that will now be presented to the Malian government, according to the document.
Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop is now expected in Algiers.
His Algerian counterpart, Ramtane Lamamra, was reported by the APS news agency as saying that the talks between the three groups had allowed them to converge and clarify their positions.
Lamamra also insisted on the necessity of an "inclusive" inter-Malian dialogue.
- 'Negotiations a priority' -
After meeting Lamamra, the head of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali, known as MINUSMA, said negotiations are now a priority.
"The region will be in danger if there is no reconciliation," state television quoted Albert Gerard Koenders as saying.
He added that it was "important to organise inclusive negotiations" with the aim of restoring peace to northern Mali.
Pierre Buyoya, the African Union's representative for Mali and the Sahel, praised the Algerian government and expressed hopes for a final agreement.
"I congratulate the Algerian government for the work done to get here," Buyoya said, quoted by APS, after meeting Lamamra.
"The situation in Mali needs to move quickly towards a peace agreement."
In the document, the three groups agree to "engage with the government of Mali in a constructive manner on the path of dialogue and negotiations for a new government that responds to the profound and legitimate aspirations of the people of north Mali".
Among their demands is the release of prisoners and "better conditions for the return of refugees once a definitive agreement is signed".
In January 2012, Tuareg fighters began the first rebellion in three years in northern Mali and formed an alliance with Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda, who sought to impose a brutal interpretation of Islamic law in towns they controlled.
Mali's army was meanwhile thrown into disarray by a coup in Bamako in March 2012.
Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda gained the upper hand over the Tuaregs in several towns before military intervention by former colonial power France in January 2013, which helped drive the armed extremists to desert hideouts. The MNLA allied itself with the army to fight Islamist forces.
Representatives of the peoples in northern Mali previously held "exploratory consultations" in Algiers in January.
They said they wanted to get full political and peace talks off the ground after discussions last year mediated by Burkina Faso on behalf of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Algeria, which has a long porous border with Mali criss-crossed by jihadist movements, is helping to mediate in the conflict affecting its southern neighbour.