Burkina Faso’s foreign minister has met al-Qaeda-linked fighters who control the northern half of the country.
Djibrill Bassole – the highest-ranking diplomat to travel to Mali’s Islamist-held north – flew into the desert city of Gao on Tuesday as part of a trip to assess the chances of a peaceful solution to the crisis that has seen Islamist fighters seize control of more than half the country.
Bassole, who was accompanied by several reporters, was welcomed by local officials as he stepped off his helicopter at Gao airport, then was taken to the city’s main hospital to meet with doctors and nurses.
“Thanks to the assistance of aid groups, we have enough medicine,” chief doctor Moulate Guiteye told him.
Surrounded by veiled nurses, the doctor explained however that the hospital had been forced to enlist residents to help because several staff members had fled following the Islamist takeover.
Cut off from Mali’s southern region by the 20-week-old crisis, about half the town’s population have fled, leaving some 35,000 residents in the sandy city of ancient mud tombs and low-slung buildings located about 1,200km north-east of the capital Bamako.
‘Message of peace’
Bassole, a seasoned diplomat who served as a chief United Nations-African Union mediator in Sudan’s Darfur crisis, also spoke to local leaders. However, he did not talk to anyone from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb offshoot that controls the city.
Bassole did meet Iyad Ag Ghali, the reclusive leader of Ansar Dine, the main Islamist group operating in the north, later in the city of Kidal.
Bassole said he was “bringing a message of peace”.
“Despite the gravity of the situation” and dramatic events in the region, “there must be room for dialogue,” he said, adding he hoped to see a complete end to hostilities soon.
Bassole’s unprecedented trip, under the patronage of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), marks an attempt by the regional bloc to rekindle diplomatic efforts and avert a military intervention.
The Islamists, who seized control of northern Mali – after dislodging Tuareg fighters who had the led the rebellion against the Mali state – are enforcing Islamic law, or sharia, with varying degrees of strictness.
In the most gruesome such incident since Mali’s de-facto partition, an unmarried couple was publicly stoned to death by Islamist fighters in the small town of Aguelhok last month.
Gao, a key hub in northern Mali, has shown some resistance to MUJAO’s attempts to implement Islamic law, most recently when a crowd prevented the militiamen from cutting off the hand of an alleged thief.
Mohamed Ould Matali, a Gao community spokesman, insisted residents were “living in perfect symbiosis with MUJAO”, which was letting them carry out most of the town’s leadership functions.
Bassole was warmly welcomed in Kidal by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a renowned former Tuareg rebel who leads the Ansar Dine Islamist group that holds the city.
The meeting appeared to go well, with Ag Ghaly afterwards saying he supported Burkina Faso’s mediation.
“We are pleased. We support and accept the mediation of President (Blaise) Compaore,” said Ag Ghaly, clad in a blue robe and white turban.
The conflict has displaced more than 400,000 people in a region already wracked by drought.
Half of them have fled across Mali’s borders to rudimentary camps in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, some of the world’s poorest nations.
ECOWAS says it is ready to send 3,300 troops into Mali, but is awaiting a formal request from a yet-to-be-formed unity government in Bamako and a mandate from the UN Security Council.
France has called an African military intervention “desirable and inevitable”, but Jean-Yves Le Drian, defence minister, said the former colonial power would not take the lead.