Mali began a third round of peace negotiations with mostly Tuareg rebel groups in Algiers on Thursday aimed at ending decades of uprisings in the north, with the government calling for a swift conclusion of a deal.
Mali’s vast desert north – called Azawad by the Tuareg rebels – has risen up four times in the last five decades, with various groups fighting for independence or a form of self-rule from the government in the south.
Earlier this year, the two sides signed a roadmap for negotiations that called for three rounds of talks before a final peace deal is to be signed in Mali, although no date was set for that agreement.
“We need to quickly reach a solid agreement,” Mali Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said, according to Algerian state news agency APS. “We are well aware of the difficulties we face on this route, and one of those is the situation on the ground.”
Unrest and violence in the West African country has continued even after troops from its former colonial ruler France intervened last year to drive back Islamists who had taken advantage of the latest Tuareg-led rebellion.
Rebels said last month that clashes between armed groups and pro-government militias killed at least six people in northern Mali, fuelling tensions just before a round of talks.
Distrust between the main separatist group and the Mali army and divisions among rebel groups themselves have also complicated attempts to hammer out a peace agreement.
Three main rebel groups – the Tuareg MNLA, High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) – have sought to unify their positions.
Amiri Ag Aissa, one of the rebel leaders, accused the government of breaching a ceasefire in July and October.
“We reaffirm our will to achieve a peace that meets the aspirations of Azawad population. But we do not want a peace that comes at any price,” he said.
Tuareg and Arab rebel groups in the north have long accused governments in the south of neglecting their region.
Mali’s government has said it has ruled out any independence or full autonomy for the northern region, but is open to negotiations over devolving more authority over local affairs.