Mali's Prime Minister Diango Cissoko on Thursday ruled out the creation of a federal state as a solution to the conflict in the north of the country, in an interview with French daily Le Monde.
"We are ready to talk about everything with everyone, not only the communities of the north. But it is out of the question to speak of federalism. We will not debate the partition of the country either," Cissoko said.
More than a month after the start of French military intervention in his deeply poor, partly desert nation to help fight armed Islamists, the Bamako government agreed to hold talks with northern populations, including the ethnic Tuaregs, who have a history of insurgency.
"I hope it will begin as of the month of March," said Cissoko, who announced on Tuesday during a visit to Paris that the government planned to set up a "dialogue and reconciliation" commission.
Officially, the Tuareg leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad ((MNLA) have renounced a claim to independence for the northern territory they call the Azawad.
During a press conference Tuesday in Paris, Cissoko said that the MNLA's time was over and "there is no more reason for it to exist (because) it recognises the integrity, the unity and the secular nature of the state."
"We will not debate the secular nature of the state," the prime minister told Le Monde, 10 months after armed Islamists started to impose strict Muslim sharia law in the north, including in the main towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
"We are open to all dialogue with every community when it comes to local development and increasing decentralisation. We are also ready to consider a form of sharing out the territory: creating more regions, local adminstrations, circles and districts in the north," he told the paper.
However, he rejected the argument that Bamako had long ignored the north of Mali. "The feeling of marginalisation among the people stems from the fact that carrying out projects is much more difficult. You need to invest four or five times what you do in the south to obtain the same result.
"Only the limited nature of the country's resources has compelled us to make choices," he added.