OUAGADOUGOU Senior Malian government officials will meet separatist and Islamist rebels for their first face-to-face talks on Tuesday, but Bamako's rejection of both groups' demands means swift progress is unlikely.
Mali this year has been plunged into crisis by a rebellion in its desert north and a coup in the capital. Rebels dominated by Islamists with links to al Qaeda now control the north while politics in the southern capital remain in post-coup paralysis.
Fearing attacks by militants in the region or in Europe, world leaders have called on African nations to prepare a force to tackle the Islamists but dialogue is also being sought with Malian Islamists and secular independence-seeking rebels in the hope the process will weaken the loose rebel alliance.
Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly, speaking on the eve of talks hosted by regional mediator Burkina Faso, said Tuesday's talks would mark the end of months of preparatory work and see diplomacy enter a new phase.
However, Coulibaly said the independence sought by secular MNLA rebels and the imposition of sharia, Islamic law, demanded by Islamist group Ansar Dine, would not gain traction.
"The Republic (of Mali) is one and indivisible, and it is secular," Coulibaly told reporters in Ouagadougou.
"As a result, these independence claims and efforts to install by force a faith or a law will not work in Mali."
The MNLA kicked off the rebellion in January, bolstered by men and weapons fresh from Libya's conflict.
By April, they and the Islamists they fought alongside had routed government forces defeated on the battlefield and thrown in to disarray by a March 22 coup. But by June the independence struggle had been hijacked by a collection of better-armed and funded Islamists.
Ansar Dine has links with al Qaeda's regional wing, AQIM, but it is led by Malians, and mediators hope the group will distance itself from AQIM and MUJWA, another Islamist group in Mali.
A military operation is widely believed to be inevitable. However, it is unlikely to take place until late next year due to the time needed to retrain Mali's army and prepare the international force.
(Reporting by Mathieu Bonkoungou; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Michael Roddy)