DAKAR A faction of one of the armed Islamist groups occupying the north of the Mali has split off from its al Qaeda allies and says it is willing to hold talks with the government, the leader of the new group said on Thursday.
Alghabass Ag Intallah, a senior member of the Tuareg-led Ansar Dine group which helped seize northern Mali last year from government forces, said he had created a new organisation, the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), and was ready to seek a negotiated solution to Mali's conflict.
A French-led military operation is underway in Mali to drive back the Islamist fighters who launched a surprise push southward toward the capital Bamako two weeks ago. An African ground force is being deployed to support French and Malian troops.
"We want to wage our war and not that of AQIM," Ag Intallah said by telephone, referring to al Qaeda's North African wing which has been at the heart of the takeover of the vast desert north by Malian and foreign Islamist fighters.
"There has to be a ceasefire so there can be talks," he said, speaking from the town of Kidal, a Tuareg stronghold in northeast Mali seized by Ansar Dine last year. "The aim is to speak about the situation in the north."
He said the new group, which would be based in Kidal, had been in touch with mediators in Burkina Faso and Algerian authorities. He said rebel demands would be for a broad autonomy rather than independence for the north.
Ansar Dine had formed a loose alliance with AQIM and a third group, MUJWA, to impose sharia Islamic law in the desert and mountain area the size of Texas.
It was not immediately possible to confirm how many fighters would leave the ranks of Ansar Dine to join the new group.
International negotiators have long sought to prize apart the Islamist alliance by offering talks to Ansar Dine and Tuareg separatists, on the condition that they broke with AQIM. Ag Intallah was a senior Ansar Dine negotiator in talks last year.
But preliminary negotiations broke down last month after Ansar Dine called off a ceasefire, amid reports of splits between moderates seeking a political solution and radicals with deep links to al Qaeda.
Ag Intallah would not give a figure for his supporters, as he said a list was still being drawn up, but he said most Malians in the ranks of Ansar Dine had joined his faction.
Estimates for the total number of Islamist fighters in Mali vary but do not exceed roughly 3,000.
Ag Intallah said some members of the Tuareg separatist MNLA movement, which has fought AQIM in the north, had also joined his group.
A spokesman for the MNLA was not immediately available for comment.
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Pascal Fletcher)