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By Mark Gleeson
DURBAN, South Africa, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Seydou Keita's sixth African Nations Cup tournament could turn out to be his best yet as the conflict in Mali drives his search for success on the pitch.
The former Barcelona midfielder turned in yet another inspiring performance to lead his country to the semi-finals after edging hosts South Africa in a penalty shootout on Saturday.
For Keita, victory continued the opportunity to spread a message of peace and to offer Mali a joyous diversion from the conflict that has beset the west African country over the last year.
French troops are leading an assault on al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels and taken back territory in the north in a three-week-old intervention.
"Our win ensures that Mali can hold their heads high. They will all be celebrating and for us to provide the joy is an honour," the 33-year-old told reporters.
Keita wore a Mali flag draped over his shoulder to the post match press conference after knocking out the hosts.
"I'm wearing the flag that is flying in the north now as proudly as it is flying in the south," he said in a reference to towns recaptured in recent days.
"It has been as important for us to win for the people as it has been for ourselves."
At the start of the African Nations Cup Keita had turned up at a press conference wearing a tee-shirt with a peace slogan, risking possible punishment for displaying political messages at the tournament. Official chose to turn a blind eye.
On the pitch, his midfield leadership allowed Mali to fight back from a goal down to beat the hosts and reach the semis.
Keita scored the 58th minute equaliser but did not need to take a kick in the shootout as Mali won 3-1.
Having already contested the semi-finals in 2004 and 2012, he is now hoping it will be third time lucky. (Editing by Pritha Sarkar)