The Mali government asked the country’s main Islamic body to open peace talks with leaders of al Qaeda’s local affiliate in an effort to end a decade of conflict.
Malian authorities previously endorsed talks and quietly backed local peace initiatives with militants as security deteriorates and Islamist groups expand beyond traditional strongholds.
The announcement by the religious affairs ministry is by far the most concrete step toward negotiations with militant leaders.
The approach is vigorously opposed by Mali’s chief military ally France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, said in June French troops would not conduct joint operations with countries that negotiate with Islamist militants.
The minister of religious affairs asked the High Islamic Council (HCI) to open negotiations with leaders of the al Qaeda-linked Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), ministry spokesperson Khalil Camara told Reuters.
“The minister met the High Islamic Council to inform them of government’s desire to negotiate with all radical Malian groups, including Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Koufa,” Camara said.
Ag Ghali is JNIM’s chief and Amadou Koufa leads JNIM’s most active affiliate in central Mali. Both are targeted by French bombing campaigns.
Mohamed Kimbiri, a senior HCI official, confirmed the body was tasked to negotiate with Malian JNIM leaders but instructed not to negotiate with foreign Islamists. Another HCI official said no talks had yet taken place.
The HCI mediated talks in central Mali’s Niono Circle area – quietly backed by national authorities – led to a peace deal in March between JNIM militants and traditional hunters opposing them.
The deal broke down in July and violence surged.
Government actions come when relations between Mali and France, which first intervened against the militants in 2013, are at a low point.
Macron announced in June France would begin drawing down its 5 000-troop mission in the Sahel, leading Mali to accuse France of abandoning it and floating the possibility of using Russian mercenaries.