Mali and France at odds over talks with Islamist militants

BAMAKO (Reuters) – Mali’s interim prime minister said on Monday he was open to talks with Islamist militants whose insurgency has made vast swathes of the country ungovernable, but former colonial power France signalled opposition to the idea.

Ousted former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said earlier this year that his government was prepared to negotiate with al Qaeda-linked militants. National talks in the aftermath of the August coup that overthrew Keita endorsed that policy.

Malian officials have provided few specifics about what kinds of compromises could emerge, but some proponents of negotiations have said they could include recognition of a greater role for Islam in public life.

Moctar Ouane, who was appointed interim prime minister last month to manage an 18-month transition after the Aug. 18 coup that toppled Keita, said his government was prepared to pursue talks.

“The conclusions of the inclusive national talks … very clearly indicated the necessity of an offer of dialogue with these armed groups,” Ouane said at a news conference in Bamako with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian who is on a two-day visit.

“We need to see in that an opportunity to engage in far-reaching discussions with the communities in order to redefine the contours of a new governance of the areas that are concerned,” he said.

Le Drian, however, indicated he was opposed, noting that the Islamist groups had not signed a 2015 peace deal that it considers a framework for restoring peace to northern Mali.

“Let’s say things very clearly: there are peace accords … and then there are terrorist groups that have not signed the peace accords,” Le Drian said. “It is simple.”

France has more than 5,000 troops in Mali and neighboring countries in West Africa’s Sahel region to fight the jihadists, against whom it first intervened in 2013.

But the militants, many with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State, have grown stronger in recent years, stepping into vacuums left by weakened state authorities.

Reporting by Paul Lorgerie, Writing by Aaron Ross; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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