French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Friday that Mali “cannot have two armies” in the rebel-held city of Kidal, calling for talks with armed Tuareg militants in the war-torn north.
The Tuaregs’ National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which runs Kidal, has refused to give up its weapons or take part in elections planned for July until negotiations have taken place with the Mali government.
“It is obvious that there cannot be two Malian armies. But in this specific case, to recover the territorial integrity of Kidal, we need dialogue. There will be no partition,” Le Drian told a media conference in Gao, northern Mali’s biggest city.
“It is therefore necessary to resume dialogue, dialogue that allows Mali recover its sovereignty in a climate of mutual respect.”
The MNLA launched a rebellion for independence of the north in January last year which plunged the West African nation into crisis.
Its insurgency sparked a coup in Bamako by soldiers in March 2012, and the crisis deepened when the rebellion was hijacked by its Islamist allies, leaving the north of the country in the hands of hardline extremists.
As former colonial power France swept to Mali’s aid in January and drove out the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists, the MNLA reclaimed control of Kidal, the heart of the Tuareg homeland which they call Azawad.
French and Chadian troops took charge of securing the town, as the MNLA refused the presence of Malian soldiers, demanding autonomy.
“This visit to Gao is first of all to congratulate the French troops for their commitment and professionalism, and to let them know how proud of them the nation is,” Le Drian added.
“I also came to say that the mission continues and that France will remain as long as it takes.”
Le Drian’s visit comes shortly after the beginning of a phased withdrawal of the 4,500-strong French contingency which will see just 1,000 troops left in Mali by the end of the year.
They will be gradually be replaced, starting from July, by a force of 12,600 peacekeepers responsible for stabilizing the north, whose creation was approved Thursday by the United Nations Security Council.
Le Drian, who arrived Thursday in Bamako on the first leg of a tour of several countries to prepare for a post-war Mali, heads from Gao to Niamey and N’Djamena, the respective capitals of Niger and Chad.