Mali Tuareg rebels hold talks with French officials

A delegation of Tuareg rebels from northern Mali on Thursday held talks with top French foreign ministry officials on resolving the country's conflict, officials said.

The meeting brought together "senior officials" from the ministry and took place at the request of the rebels from the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said.

The delegation was headed by MNLA leader Bilal Ag Acherif. An MNLA source said the meeting lasted for two hours.

"We said that we wanted France to hear us and that it facilitates the return of peace," said Moussa Ag Assarid, an MNLA spokesman based in Paris.

Lalliot, speaking before the meeting, said it was "an opportunity for us to remind the MNLA of what it must do for a lasting peace in Mali by renouncing its demand for independence."

He said there was a pressing need for talks between "the government and non-terrorist groups in northern Mali at a time when the UN Security Council is about to authorise an African military intervention at the request of the African Union."

Several Islamist groups control Mali's vast desert north after a March coup in Bamako toppled president Amadou Toumani Toure.

While the MNLA was initially among those in control of the north, it was chased out by Islamist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

France has played a leading role in pushing west African countries into the creation of a military force capable of intervening in Mali and reclaiming control of the north.

The MNLA has so far refused to support the idea of a foreign intervention, instead asking for Western backing so it can dislodge the Islamists.

Its forces clashed with those of MUJAO over the weekend, with both sides claiming victory.

Lalliot said French officials would urge the MNLA to give up its claims to independence for the north "so that a longlasting peace can be re-established in Mali."

The MNLA and Ansar Dine, which is made up largely of Malians unlike the other foreigner-dominated Islamist groups in the region, on Friday offered to hold talks with authorities in Bamako to end the crisis.

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