France and Mali differed on Monday over whether to talk to jihadists to help end the Sahel state’s eight-year-old insurgency, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian ruling the option out.
During a news conference in the capital Bamako, Le Drian distinguished between engaging with armed groups which had signed peace accords, and “terror groups”.
“Things are simple,” he said.
Le Drian’s visit marks the first by a French politician since young army officers toppled president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on August 18.
Le Drian told AFP the reason for his visit was to “establish a relationship of trust with the new authorities”.
After international pressure, Mali‘s military junta handed over to an interim government which is meant to stage elections within 18 months.
Le Drian said his position against dialogue was shared by United Nations Security Council and the G5 Sahel countries — a regional anti-jihadist force which includes Mali.
But Mali’s interim prime minister, Moctar Ouane, swiftly disagreed with him, in a sign of a policy rift between the Sahel state and France, the former colonial power.
He pointed out that a forum on Mali’s crisis last year, gathering local leaders, had “very clearly indicated the need for an offer of dialogue with (jihadist) armed groups.”
Mali’s coup came after waves of anti-government protests partly fuelled by Keita’s failure to end the brutal insurgency.
Conflict has raged in Mali since 2012, and has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Intense fighting has continued despite the presence of French and UN troops, prompting many to argue that dialogue with jihadists is the best way to end the bloodshed.
‘We can talk’
Ouane told reporters that dialogue offered “an opportunity to launch a huge discussion with communities to define the contours of a new governance,” he said, without further details.
In a reference to France, Ouane cautioned however: “This will require synchronisation and coordination with our partners, especially those who are involved militarily.”
The French government in January pledged to step up its military engagement in the Sahel, and designated the Islamic State group as its “number one” enemy in region.
Keita’s government, under domestic pressure to resolve the conflict, said shortly afterwards that it was prepared to talk to groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, which are at odds with Islamic State.
It is unclear to what extent Keita’s government engaged al-Qaeda-linked jihadists before the army overthrew him in August.
Jean-Herve Jezequel, an analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, explained that Sahel jihadists are “rooted in their communities, which are sometimes sympathetic to them”.
They are also increasingly involved in local affairs, which is why many “are trying to explore the path of dialogue,” he said.
Informal contacts between the new government in Bamako and jihadist groups are apparently already underway.
This month, the government swapped some 200 detainees — many of them thought to be jihadists — for four captives held by Islamist groups, including 75-year-old Sophie Petronin, the last remaining French hostage in the world.
Le Drian’s visit also comes at a time when world leaders appear to be considering the possibility of jihadist talks.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told French daily Le Monde in September “there will be groups with which we can talk, and which will have an interest in engaging in dialogue to become political actors in the future”.
Swathes of Mali, a vast West African nation of some 19 million people, lie outside government control.
France has 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel region as part of its anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane.
The United Nations has some 13,000 troops deployed in Mali as part of its peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA.