Mali Interim Government Considers Talks With Islamist Militants

(Bloomberg) — Mali is considering talks with militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in an apparent departure from the stance of France, its main partner in the fight against jihadists.

“Talks with these groups are in line with the will of the Malian people,” Moctar Ouane, the transitional government’s prime minister, told Paris-based broadcaster France 24 in an interview aired Thursday. Dialogue “complements the military operation and should be seen as an opportunity,” Ouane said. Al-Qaeda’s top commander in Mali, Iyad Ag Ghali, could be included in talks, he said.

Fighters from a local armed group and pro-government armed group gather outside their headquarters in the town of Menaka on November 21, 2020. (Photo by SOULEYMANE AG ANARA/AFP via Getty Images)

The comments appear to contradict the position of France, which has run a counter-terrorism operation in the region since 2013. President Emmanuel Macron told Jeune Afrique magazine last month that there’s no room for talks with militants. French forces recently killed more than 50 al-Qaeda-linked fighters and have intensified their operation in the region.

However, Ouane said “there’s no disagreement between France and Mali on this matter.”

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The West African nation is struggling to contain an eight-year insurgency, which has killed nearly 2,000 people in Mali and neighboring countries in the first seven months of the year, the highest toll since the crisis began in 2012, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

Negotiations with Islamist militants helped secure the release in October of Mali’s main opposition leader, Soumaila Cisse, who was held hostage for almost seven months, and of a 75-year-old French citizen who’d been in captivity for four years, Ouane said.

The hostages’ release came weeks after Mali named a new leadership following an Aug. 18 coup that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. The interim government faces the uphill task of preparing elections within 18 months, a time-line imposed by the Economic Community of West African States. 

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