Burkinabe mediator in Mali's Gao for talks with Islamists
8/7/2012 8:20:03 PM -
GAO, Mali (AFP) - Burkina Faso's foreign minister, the highest-ranking diplomat to travel to Mali's Islamist-held north, met Tuesday with Al-Qaeda-linked fighters who have sliced the west African nation in two.
Djibrill Bassole, whose boss President Blaise Compaore was appointed by the regional bloc as lead mediator in Mali, flew into the desert city of Gao as part of a trip to assess the chances of a peaceful solution to the crisis that has seen Islamists 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 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) north-east of the capital Bamako.
Bassole, a seasoned diplomat who served as a chief United Nations-African Union mediator in Sudan's Darfur crisis, also spoke with local leaders but 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.
He 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 aegis 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 piggy-backed on and then snuffed out a military offensive by Tuareg separatists to seize control of northern Mali -- an area larger than France or Texas -- 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 sharia, 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 also visited Kidal, another key northern city that, along with Timbuktu, fell into Islamist hands in the aftermath of a short-lived March coup in Bamako.
He was warmly welcomed there 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 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 Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the former colonial power would not take the lead.
Also Tuesday, three men pleaded not guilty in a Bamako court for their alleged role in organising a May protest during which interim president Dioncounda Traore was brutally attacked by a mob of angry protesters who stormed his office.
Traore, 70, spent two months recovering in Paris before returning to Mali on July 27.