Tuareg political factions in northern Mali have held an unprecedented meeting attended by Tuareg fighters and members of armed groups, as well as representatives from the United Nations and French military, an official told Al Jazeera.
The organisers of Monday’s gathering in the northern town of Kidal, the Azawad High Council, said that it was time for all “Azawadis” – a term used by the separatists for citizens in the north – to have their voices heard, and to find a solution to the ongoing crisis in the West African nation.
The council also said they wanted to establish a common position ahead of talks with the government in the Malian capital, Bamako, which the UN intends to broker soon.
“What’s special about this meeting is that we’ve invited all Azawadis to take part – and they have all come. This Congress is the venue for all decisions on the future of our people and our land to be taken,” Alghabass Ag Intalla, the secretary general of the High Council for the Unity of the Azawad, told Al Jazeera.
Mali plunged into chaos in early 2012 after a Tuareg rebellion, which was followed by a military coup in Bamako.
The Tuareg, a nomadic rebel group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), seized control of an area larger than France before being ousted by al-Qaeda-linked groups who imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law on the local population, carrying out amputations and executions.
Al-Qaeda has based itself in northern Mali for at least 12 years, as part of an alleged secret agreement with Amadou Toumani Toure, the president of Mali who was deposed in the 2012 coup.
These actions prompted France to launch a military intervention in its former colony in January 2013.
Paris had said that it was winding down its troop presence in Mali as a 12,000-strong UN mission slowly comes up to full strength, but the French Defence Minister said on Friday that the country had decided to reorganise its military presence in the Sahel region to “fight terrorism”.
The minister said 1,000 soldiers would remain in Mali and 3,000 in the Sahel-Sahara zone, and that the force would be there “for as long as necessary”.