BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has confirmed that his government is in contact with al-Qaida-linked extremist leaders as the West African country faces some of the worst violence since its crisis began in 2012, according to an interview with French media.
While attending an African Union summit in Ethiopia, Keita also confirmed that Mali's military would soon be returning to the northern rebel stronghold town of Kidal, where it has not had a presence in six years.
Keita told Radio France Internationale and France 24 that he had a duty “to do everything possible so that, by one means or another, we can achieve some sort of appeasement.”
He added on Monday: “Because the number of deaths in the Sahel today is becoming exponential. And I think it is time that certain paths were explored."
“We in Mali have tried the challenge of an inclusive national dialogue, and among our recommendations is this aspect," he said. "Why not try contact with those who we know are pulling the strings of the situation in Mali?”
Keita was asked about media reports that he had allowed former President Dioncounda Traore to meet with extremist leaders Amadou Koufa and Iyad Ag Ghali.
Both were prominent leaders of the Malian extremist group Ansar Dine before a French-led military intervention in 2013. They are now under the banner of an al-Qaida-linked group known as JNIM.
Keita described Ag Ghali as a “courteous, pleasant man” back in the day when the two had crossed paths in the capital, Bamako.
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“I don't know that he has remained that man after all that I remember today,” Keita told the French media outlets.
The French-led military operation in 2013 ousted extremists from control of the major towns in northern Mali including Kidal. The militants dispersed into the desert where they regrouped and have now expanded their reach significantly into central Mali and beyond.
Mali's army recently came under an unprecedented number of attacks on its outposts that killed hundreds of soldiers. The government went so far as to shut down some of its most isolated and vulnerable military camps as part of a reorganization aimed at stemming the losses.
In the interview, Keita said the military was on its way back to Kidal, one of the key stipulations of a 2015 agreement between the government and several rebel groups that has faced many setbacks in implementation.
Nearly 600 soldiers of the Malian army, made up of former rebels and regular army soldiers, began traveling to Kidal on Monday.
Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed.