Ansar Dine revokes pledge to end Mali hostilities
NOUAKCHOTT - One of the armed Islamist groups occupying northern Mali, Ansar Dine, said on Thursday that it had revoked a pledge to end hostilities, accusing the government of giving nothing in return.
Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith", made the pledge a day after the UN Security Council approved the deployment of an international force to reclaim northern Mali, which was seized by Islamists in the wake of a March 22 coup.
The group's December 21 announcement that it was ready to put down its guns and hold talks with the government had raised hopes of a negotiated settlement to end the nine-month crisis.
But Thursday's reversal came as a setback for efforts to find a political solution.
"Ansar Dine has decided to revoke the offer to stop hostilities together with the negotiations being conducted in Ouagadougou," said Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, in a statement to Mauritanian news agency Sahara Medias.
The Ouagadougou talks are being led by Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, west Africa's chief mediator for the crisis.
The Ansar Dine statement lashed out at the Malian government, saying it had given nothing in return for the promise to end hostilities and was instead busy "recruiting mercenaries" to fight in the north of Mali.
Ag Ghaly said the pledge to end hostilities had been "torn out" of his delegation during "rough negotiations" in Algeria.
He said he was still open to "new negotiations, even if (Ansar Dine) has never detected a willingness from the other party to reciprocate".
African nations have 3,300 troops on standby for a mission to reclaim northern Mali.
The UN Security Council on December 20 approved the deployment of an international force, but in stages and without a precise timetable.
The Security Council also insisted on the need for dialogue with armed groups in the north that reject terrorism and the partition of the country.
Ansar Dine and another armed group in the north, the Azawad National Liberation Movement -- an ethnic-Tuareg separatist group -- announced they were ready to cease hostilities and negotiate with Mali's transitional government.
The groups are both homegrown movements seen as more moderate than their sometime allies in the vast desert north, the jihadist groups the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The Islamist groups seized northern Mali in the wake of the March coup, and have since imposed a brutal form of sharia, or Islamic law.
Their occupation of the Texas-sized territory has raised fears they could use the north as a base to launch attacks on the region and Europe.
Mali's interim president said Monday that his administration could not wait several months before launching an offensive to retake the north.
"I can tell you one thing: Mali will not wait months, as some seem to advocate. We will not wait for the cancer to spread," said in a New Year address.
"The war against the terrorists will happen sooner than expected and the Malian army will be at the forefront," he said.
Under pressure from Burkina Faso and Algeria, Ansar Dine has also announced it no longer wants to impose sharia across Mali, saying it will limit itself to applying the strict Islamic law in territory under its control.
Witnesses say the harsh application of sharia has continued unabated in the north. On Wednesday a woman accused of having sex out of wedlock was publicly beaten until she fainted and had to be taken to hospital.