Mali's president offered Tuareg rebels talks on Thursday in a bid for national reconciliation after a French-led offensive drove their Islamist former allies into mountain hideaways.
A three-week ground and air offensive dislodged al Qaeda linked fighters from northern Mali's major towns, ending the first phase of an operation designed to prevent Islamists using the vast desert region as a launchpad for attacks on Europe.
France is now due to gradually transfer the military mission to a U.N.-mandated African force of some 8,000 soldiers, tasked with securing northern towns and pursuing militants into their mountain fastnesses near the porous Algerian border.
French air-strikes have destroyed the Islamists' training camps and logistics bases but Paris says a long-term solution hinges on finding a political settlement between Mali's restive northern Tuareg community and the distant capital Bamako.
Pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA rebels, whose rebellion last year was hijacked by the better armed and financed Islamists, have already retaken control of their remote northern stronghold of Kidal after al Qaeda-linked fighters fled from French airstrikes into the rugged Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.
French troops, which occupied Kidal's airport on Tuesday, have not entered the town and Malian forces have been stationed far to the south in the liberated towns of Gao and Timbuktu.
Under pressure from Paris, Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore said he was ready to open talks with the MNLA provided it honoured a pledge to drop its claims of independence for northern Mali.
"Today, the only group that we could think of negotiating with is certainly the MNLA. But, of course, on condition that the MNLA drops any pretence to a territorial claim," Traore told French radio RFI, ruling out talks with any Islamist groups.
The MNLA's leaders have offered to join the fight against the Islamists, amid fears that the Malian army would carry out reprisals against Tuaregs in recaptured towns.
The Tuareg rebellion last year, which prompted frustrated army officers to topple the government in Bamako, is blamed by many Malians for the current crisis.
Traore, installed in office after the March military coup, has called national elections for July 31 to complete a political transition.
LANDMINE ATTACK KILLS FOUR
Military analysts suggest the conflict could now be headed for a prolonged, low-level insurgency, with small groups of Islamist fighters carrying out sporadic attacks.
Four Malian soldiers were killed and five injured when their patrol vehicle hit a mine on the road between Gao and the nearby town of Gossi, in the first incident of its kind during the conflict, Malian military sources said.
Only one French soldier has been killed in the mission but Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned on Wednesday that things could get more difficult as troops try to flush out insurgents from wilderness hideouts. He warned of the risks of hostage-taking and strikes against French interests across the region.
An attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria earlier this month by Islamist fighters opposing the French intervention in Mali led to the deaths of 37 foreign hostages and raised fears of similar reprisals across North and West Africa.
Amid concerns over the funding, equipment and leadership of the African force, Paris renewed a push for the U.N. Security Council to approve a peacekeeping force, an idea the world body had rejected before French military intervention.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had resisted U.N. peacekeepers becoming embroiled in an offensive combat mission but the recapture of the main Malian towns has made a deployment less risky. The Security Council is due to discuss the possibility soon, U.N. diplomats said on Wednesday.
"This development is extremely positive and I want this initiative to be carried through," French Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Inter radio, adding that France would "obviously play its role".
The dusty streets of the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu, liberated by French forces at the weekend, were quiet on Thursday after the looting of shops and residences in recent days belonging to Tuaregs and Arabs, ethnic groups associated with the Islamist rebels.
By banning music and cutting thieves' hands off, Islamists inspired deep hatred in north Mali's residents, mostly followers of moderate Sufi Islam. In acts reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Islamists bulldozed mausoleums and burned some ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Many are now warning of the risk of ethnic reprisals against the Tuaregs and Arabs as displaced black Malians take up arms to return to their liberated towns.
(Additional reporting Bate Felix in Dakar, John Irish in Paris, Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, and Louis Charbonneau; Writing by Daniel Flynn)
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