Mali’s new president Keita faces Tuareg challenge

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali’s new president-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is presented with the challenge of finding a resolution to the simmering separatist rebellion in the country’s north.

Keita won Mali’s presidency late Monday when his opponent Soumaila Cisse conceded defeat before official election results were even released.

Based on Keita’s recent campaign visit to the rebels’ stronghold, though, it looks like the path to reconciliation won’t be an easy one.

Rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad — the name they give to their homeland — tried to block Keita’s plane from landing on the runway. When that failed, they hurled stones at his parked jet to show their disapproval.

Keita won’t have much time to prepare for negotiations: Under an agreement signed in June, talks with the separatist Tuareg rebels are supposed to take place within 60 days of the new government’s formation. With Keita’s inauguration set for mid-September, the dialogue could start by the end of November.

The talks are expected to be “extremely politically sensitive,” said Bruce Whitehouse, a Bamako-based Mali specialist who teaches at Lehigh University. Keita might be effective in the talks, said Whitehouse.

“He’s somebody who can sort of straddle the fence and appeal to different groups at the same time,” he said. “He might be well positioned to make some difficult risky moves and still be able to represent himself as doing the right thing by the Malian people.”

Many voters say they want Keita — who is widely known by his initials “IBK” — to take an uncompromising position with the NMLA as they blame the separatists for creating Mali’s political disaster. Army soldiers who were unhappy with then- President Amadou Toumani Toure’s handling of the rebellion launched a March 2012 coup, and the power vacuum allowed al-Qaida-linked militants to take ahold of northern Mali.

“I voted for IBK because we want a president who can liberate the north,” said Sata Keita, 28, who is not related to the new president. “He should not negotiate with the Tuareg rebels because people should respect the law and Mali will not be divided. IBK should not tolerate these excesses. We need a total change in Mali.”

It is hard to tell, though, whether Keita has a detailed plan at this point to deal with the situation, said Paul Melly, an African affairs specialist at the London-based policy institute Chatham House.

“Because IBK is popular in the south and is seen as a tough defender of national interests, he may be better placed to persuade southerners to accept the compromises that will be necessary for a settlement of the problems in the north,” Melly said.

The Tuareg rebels did not endorse either candidate, though at least one representative of the group said he favored Keita over his opponent, who had said he was against any autonomy for the north.

Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, president of the NMLA’s negotiation committee for the talks in neighboring Burkina Faso, congratulated Keita on his victory and said he would consider attending Keita’s inauguration if invited.

A representative for the NMLA in Europe, though, was less enthusiastic.

“We hope that with him and his team we will end up at a just, equitable and definitive solution that will allow Azawadians to make decisions that will be suitable for their development,” said Moussa Ag Assarid, an NMLA representative based in Europe.

Keita must also work to reconcile ethnic tensions that were exposed after Tuareg separatists launched a fresh rebellion in early 2012. Tuaregs and other light-skinned northerners have faced reprisal attacks and killings by Malians who blame them for creating the situation that led to al-Qaida-linked militant takeover last year.

In the latest reprisal attack, officials said an angry mob in the northern town of Lere had killed a Tuareg man on Sunday who had returned home so that he could vote in the presidential runoff election. Nearly 200,000 Malians remain outside the country in refugee camps in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, fearing they, too, could be killed if they return home.

Tuaregs, the lighter-skinned nomads of Mali’s north, petitioned their colonial ruler France at independence 53 years ago to be granted their own territory independent from the rest of the country.

In the decades that followed, Mali’s government faced waves of rebellions and signed agreements that promised the north greater resources and influence. The 2012 rebellion forced the Malian military in retreat from the north, and Islamic extremists took advantage of the chaos to seize control and implement their harsh interpretation of Islamic Shariah law. The jihadists ultimately ousted the secular Tuareg separatists as well.

After a French-led military intervention in January 2013, the jihadists fled into the desert and Tuareg rebels began returning to the area. In the town of Kidal, the flag of Azawad now flies instead of the Malian one, and rebels remain in control of numerous government buildings.

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Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Brahima Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso contributed to this report.

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