OUAGADOUGOU: One of the main militant groups controlling northern Mali offered important concessions on Wednesday, as plans to send an international military force to the country gathered steam.
Ansar Dine said it was ready to help rid the region of “terrorism” and “foreign groups”, and that it no longer wanted to impose sharia, across all of Mali.
If the Islamist group were to negotiate with the Malian authorities, “one can foresee ways and means in which one can get rid of terrorism, drug trafficking and foreign groups,” said Mohammad Ag Aharib, spokesman for an Ansar Dine delegation that has been talking with mediators in Burkina Faso.
“We don’t agree with taking hostages and drug trafficking,” he told AFP.
Mali rapidly imploded after a coup in March allowed ethnic Tawareq desert nomads, who had relaunched a decades-old rebellion for independence, to seize the main towns in the country’s vast desert north with the help of Islamist allies.
The secular separatists were quickly sidelined by the Islamists, who implemented their version of strict sharia and operated across the region with impunity, sparking growing international concern.
Ansar Dine’s comments further distance the group — whose members are mostly Malian Tawareqs — from the mainly foreign Islamists of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) who have been occupying the north alongside Ansar Dine since April.
Top US General Carter Ham on Wednesday urged a global fight against AQIM, saying it could “export violence” to the West.
Ham, the head of the US Africa Command, also said AQIM was linked to a deadly September 11 attack on the US mission in Benghazi that killed US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others.
“If we, the international community, don’t find a way to help the Africans address this threat, it’s going to worsen,” he said.
Niger’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Bazoum accused former Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure of complacency in handling AQIM, thereby allowing the group to take root in the north of the country.
“It was since 2002 that AQIM set up in the north of Mali. The Malian government of that time was particularly complacent,” he said.
Malian authorities had received “precise information from Niger or Mauritania on AQIM’s network” which could have helped to “cut off their supply routes” and weaken the group, said Bazoum.
He stressed the need to combat “AQIM and the foreigners”.
“They are the most powerful because it’s them who control the drug trade. We must chase them out,” he said.
Ansar Dine, AQIM and MUJAO have imposed a brutal regime in the north, stoning to death unmarried lovers, amputating thieves’ hands and feet and whipping drinkers and smokers.
Islamists in Timbuktu have also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines that have been revered for centuries and are classed as World Heritage Sites, but which the radicals consider blasphemous.
But Ansar Dine has recently sent envoys to Burkina Faso and Algeria in a bid to negotiate an end to the crisis, and has also called on other fighters in northern Mali to join them in political dialogue.