Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said authorities were prepared to talk with jihadist groups in the hope of ending an insurgency that has made swathes of the country ungovernable and stoked ethnic violence.
The army suffered increasing losses in recent months at the hands of Islamist fighters, who stepped up attacks on soldiers and civilians in neighbouring countries in the Sahel region, particularly Burkina Faso.
Escalating bloodshed in Mali’s central and northern regions prompted a rethink in Bamako, Keita told French media.
“Why not try to contact those who we know are pulling the strings,” he said in an interview on Radio France Internationale.
“The number of dead in the Sahel is becoming exponential. It’s time for other avenues to be explored.”
Keita did not say what was being done to talk to Islamist groups.
He said former president Dioncounda Traore, his high representative to central Mali, “has the task of listening to everyone”.
French forces intervened in 2013 to drive back jihadists who seized northern Mali, but the militants regrouped, capitalising on inter-communal conflict to recruit and extend their reach into central Mali.
The International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention body, said last year dialogue with jihadists may encounter opposition in Mali and abroad from those who fear it could legitimise the groups and their ideas.
Government will recruit 10 000 more soldiers to counter the jihadist threat and France is sending 600 soldiers to add to the 4 500 already in the Sahel or with a 14 000-strong regional UN peacekeeping mission.
The UN’s top humanitarian official in Mali, Ute Kollies, said last week extra troops would not solve the crisis and urged political engagement.
Last year, at least 456 civilians were killed and hundreds wounded in central Mali in what was the deadliest year for Malians since the start of the unrest, Human Rights Watch said in a report.