France has called for peace talks to be held between Mali’s government and “legitimate representatives” from rebel groups in the north of the country, after French troops took control of the city of Kidal, the last settlement held by al-Qaeda-linked rebel fighters.
Philippe Lalliot, a spokesperson for the French foreign minister, said on Wednesday that it was now time for the “political process” to advance.
He called for talks with the legitimate representatives of the northern peoples and “non-terrorist armed groups” that recognise the integrity of Mali.
“Only a north-south dialogue will prepare the ground for the Malian state to return to the north of the country,” he said.
On Thursday, Jean-Yves le Drian, the French defence minister, declared that the military intervention in Mali had “succeeded”.
“We have arrived at a moment of change in the French intervention – the French intervention has succeeded. The president of the republic wanted first of all that we stop the offensive of the rebels towards the south – it was done in the first days,” he said.
“Secondly, he wanted us to accompany the Malian and African forces once they are set up in taking back autonomy and territorial integrity of the Malian state – that is ongoing.”
On Tuesday, Mali’s parliament adopted a political roadmap that included a commitment to holding elections by July 31 and commencing negotiations with representatives from the north.
Dioncounda Traore, Mali’s interim president, reiterated on Thursday his government’s intention only to negotiate with secular groups in the north.
He told France’s RFI radio he was ready for talks with the secular Tuaregs of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym, MNLA), who want an independent homeland for their people.
Traore said, however, that he would not meet with representatives from any of the three al-Qaeda-linked groups – Ansar Dine, MIA and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – that seized northern Mali last year.
The president said that the rebel groups had pulled out of cities in the north, and that Malian and French forces would have “established a presence everywhere” within a month.
French forces arrived at Kidal airport early on Wednesday, days after having captured Gao and Timbuktu. Having taken the cities, the French military will now be seeking to hand over control of them to a combined west African military force.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defence minister, said the troops at Kidal had been unable to leave the airport there because of a sandstorm.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the newly formed Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), which announced on Monday that it had taken control of the town, said that its leader was in negotiations with French forces.
On Wednesday, the group appealed to the international community to prevent the deployment of Malian and West African troops in the Kidal region before a political solution had been found.
Kidal lies 1,500km northeast of the capital Bamako and until recently was controlled by Ansar Dine.
The plans for the African-led military force for Mali (AFISMA) to take over from French forces, however, have been hampered by a lack of funding and equipment.
Nigeria’s General Shehu Abdulkadir, commander of the force, said the 6,000-strong force could be in place within two weeks.
The United Nations, meanwhile, is due to begin discussing the formation of a possible UN peacekeeping force for Mali, envoys said on Wednesday.
Deployment of a UN peacekeeping force would require UN Security Council approval. Another option would be to send in an African Union force mandated by the council with logistical and other support from the United Nations, similar to the AU’s Somalia mission.