KIDAL, Mali – The leader of the main radical Islamist group controlling northern Mali said on Tuesday that he has faith in the mediation effort led by neighboring Burkina Faso.
The head of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghali, met with Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole on Tuesday. Bassole flew on a charter jet to the north Malian cities of Gao and Kidal in order to meet the radical Islamists controlling the area.
"I firmly support this mediation effort," Ag Ghali said after his closed-door meeting.
Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore is attempting to mediate a solution to the crisis, and in June, Compaore sent a helicopter to northern Mali to retrieve one of Ansar Dine's wounded commanders.
Mali's north was overrun by a mix of rebel groups including several allied with al-Qaida following a coup in the capital in March. Since June, the Islamists have exerted full control of the northern half of the country, and have imposed Shariah law, recently stoning an adulterous couple to death. Ag Ghali is the reclusive leader of Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith," which is the most important of the radical groups in the north.
Ag Ghali is known to have ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the al-Qaida franchise operating in North Africa and he was frequently mentioned in U.S. diplomatic cables, often playing the role of go-between when Western hostages were kidnapped. At one point, the government of Mali attempted to win him over, even appointing him as Mali's consul in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Tens of thousands of people have fled Mali's north, and hundreds are still pouring across the border into refugee camps in Mauritania and Niger. The Islamists are requiring women to veil themselves, and have forbidden popular pastimes, including listening to music or playing soccer.
Before arriving in Kidal, where he met Ag Ghali, Bassole stopped in the northern city of Gao, controlled by the jihadist group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJAO . There, he visited the municipal hospital, and asked after Malian radio journalist Abdoul Malick Maiga, who was hospitalized on Sunday.
Maiga was attacked for reporting on a protest march in Gao that led MUJAO to go back on their decision to cut off the hand of a man who allegedly stole something. The protest marks one of the only times that residents have succeeded in getting the Islamists to back down on the application of Shariah. A week earlier, a couple in the northern village of Aguelhok were stoned to death in a Shariah punishment for allegedly committing adultery.
Associated Press Writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Bamako, Mali.