Mali’s government and Tuareg-led rebels resumed U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Algeria on Monday in pursuit of an accord to end uprisings by separatists seeking more self-rule for the northern region they call Azawad.
Decades of mistrust and recent intensified fighting between rebels and government-allied militias have complicated attempts to reach a comprehensive deal on Mali’s desert north.
Western governments are keen for a durable peace, fearing Islamist militants will again use the turmoil in the north to gain a foothold, two years after French troops intervened to drive them back.
“No agreement is perfect, no accord is perfect, but there is always a middle ground,” said U.N. envoy Mongi Hamdi, who believes the two sides are in the last stage of negotiations.
Analysts and sources on both sides of the talks were more wary about a final deal with lingering disagreements on fighting on the ground, devolving power and even the name Azawad.
The United Nations this week hoped the two sides would sign up to halting hostilities before talks started, but so far no agreement was reached, sources on both sides said.
Bamako and rebel groups agreed last year to a preliminary roadmap set out for talks. The U.N. project document recognises the unity and territorial integrity of Mali, but also the need for more rights and development.
Mali says it will not discuss northern autonomy, but will talk about devolving more local authority.
Rebels are seeking a form of local government, saying Bamako for decades neglected their region.
“We need a system of federalism,” said Mohamed Ould Mauoloud Ramadan, with the MAA rebels. “The fact that we have made concessions, we need to have a special status.”
Analysts say that intensified fighting is hardening positions as Tuareg-led rebels with the MNLA and the MAA clash with pro-government militias.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is also under pressure over security and faces criticism from southerners unwilling to give concessions to northern rebels.
Andrew Lebovich, a researcher on the Sahel, said the talks are just “one part of an increasingly troubled process.
“Even if the Malian government, government-allied militias, and rebel groups could come to an agreement,” he said, “they would all still have to answer to constituencies that in different ways have expressed their displeasure with any outcome that does not present a clear victory on their terms.”