Malian authorities and armed ethnic Tuareg rebels began talks on Saturday aimed at resolving the conflict in the north to enable planned nationwide elections to go ahead next month.
“The aim is to find a durable solution to the grave crisis engulfing Mali,” said President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso which is mediating the negotiations.
“Security is vital for the holding of free and transparent elections,” he said, calling for a cessation of renewed hostilities between government troops and rebels.
Tensions remain high in the north after heavy fighting erupted on Wednesday near the rebel-held city of Kidal, stoking concerns about the staging of the presidential election scheduled for July 28.
Kidal, which is prized by the Tuaregs, has been occupied since the end of January by the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) which has been accused of “ethnic cleansing” in the town.
Fighting erupted in the town of Anefis south of Kidal which left 30 rebels dead and two Malian soldiers wounded, according to the army.
The battles flared after more than 100 black inhabitants were expelled from Kidal, while many others were arrested by the lighter-skinned Tuaregs of the MNLA in an act denounced as “ethnic cleansing” by the Bamako government.
But Mali’s army has declared its intention to recapture Kidal before the election in Mali, once a model democracy in troubled west Africa until a coup in March last year.
Compaore said the parties meeting in Ouagadougou must agree on the “redeployment of general administration, basic social services, defense and security forces to the north of Mali and in particular to Kidal.”
Tuareg rebels have until now refused to allow Malian soldiers and officials to enter Kidal. They want UN peacekeepers to oversee the vote.
Compaore met a Bamako delegation before separately meeting a Tuareg delegation on Saturday. A meeting between the two sides has not been planned yet.
The talks in Ouagadougou are scheduled to go on all weekend, said Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole. They are aimed at producing an interim deal by Monday.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special representative to Mali, Bert Koenders, said he did not believe that the fighting near Kidal.
Koenders told reporters in Bamako on Friday that he placed "great hope in the Ouagadougou negotiations".
The talks in the Burkina Faso capital had been due to get under way on Friday, but were postponed at the last minute at Bamako's request, a diplomatic source said.
Armed ethnic Tuaregs from MNLA rose up to fight for independence for the north in January last year and overwhelmed government troops, leading frustrated mid-level officers to launch a coup that toppled elected president Amadou Toumani Toure.
Together with Al-Qaeda-linked militants, the Tuareg rebels seized key northern cities, but were then chased out by their former Islamist allies.
Former colonial power France sent troops in January to block an advance by the extremists on the capital Bamako, pushing them out of the main cities and into desert and mountain hideouts.
The French then let the MNLA back into Kidal, raising fears in Bamako, 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) to the southwest, that Paris wants to let the Tuareg rebels keep Kidal as part of an eventual deal for self-rule.
Mali holds crisis talks with Tuareg rebels