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Mali leader says Tuareg rebels 'ready for talks'

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Tuareg separatist rebels who held a chunk of Mali's vast north and still occupy the key town of Kidal are ready for talks to end the west African country's crisis, President Dioncounda Traore said Friday.

Traore, who met French counterpart Francois Hollande at the Elysee presidential palace, also pledged that elections would be held on July 28 to replace his interim government.

The Malian leader "repeated that the elections will be held on the scheduled date and that is our position as well," Hollande told journalists.

Traore meanwhile said the demand for the autonomy of the region of Kidal, held by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), was not a real stumbing block.

The MNLA has refused to give up its weapons or take part in the July elections until negotiations have taken place with the Mali government.

"I am sure that at this moment, the MNLA is ready to enter into a sincere and meaningful dialogue with the rest of Mali," he said.

"The MNLA is made up of Malians, compatriots whom we treat differently than the manner reserved for jihadists and we can talk and discuss with them," Traore said.

In an interview to Euronews on Thursday, Traore had said he was "ready" to talk to the MNLA but rejected any demands for autonomy.

The crisis in Mali began when Tuareg rebels relaunched a rebellion in January 2012 for independence of the vast desert north.

Their insurgency overwhelmed Mali's troops and led to a coup in Bamako. This opened the way for hardline Islamists to chase out their former Tuareg allies and seize key northern cities.

France intervened in Mali in January and has since pushed the Al-Qaeda-linked militants into desert and mountain hideouts, from where they are staging guerrilla attacks.

France has begun withdrawing its 4,500 troops deployed in Mali and handing over the reins to an African force, the International Mission for Support to Mali (MISMA).

Paris has said about 1,000 soldiers will remain in Mali beyond this year to back up a UN force that is to replace MISMA.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130517/mali-leader-says-tuareg-rebels-ready-talks