OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso – One of the three al-Qaida-linked groups currently controlling northern Mali said Wednesday it would not give up its harsh form of Islamic law, appearing to offer little ground in last-ditch talks meant to avert a military intervention to take back the region.
Members of Ansar Dine said they are willing to allow the rest of Mali to be governed by a different set of rules, but spokesman Mohamed Ag Aharib told reporters that asking his group to relinquish Shariah law in the area under their control is like asking them to give up being Muslim.
Ansar Dine is believed to be the most moderate of the three al-Qaida-linked groups currently in control of northern Mali. Representatives of the group have been meeting with Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, who has been appointed as a mediator, but the group's unbending stance on Shariah casts doubt on whether the effort can make headway.
Earlier this week, the African Union approved a military plan that calls for a coalition of 3,300 African troops to be deployed in order to win back Mali's north which fell to Islamic extremists in April.
"We affirm that we want to impose Shariah in our home. We are not saying that we are going to apply it to the rest of the country, but we insist that it be applied where we live," said Ag Aharib, whose group's fighters control Kidal and Timbuktu, two of the three largest cities in Mali's north.
"We want the world to know that Shariah is not just the cutting off of people's hands. It's our religion. It's one of the practices within our religion and if we are asked to renounce Shariah, we might as well be asked to renounce Islam," he said.
Since seizing control of the north, a territory as large as France, Ansar Dine has carried out amputations of accused thieves as well as the stoning of a couple who had had children out of wedlock. Music of all kind has been banned, and even the Nokia cellphone jingle is forbidden. Women in the normally tolerant nation have been forced to cover up, and the Islamists have shown no mercy, publicly flogging a 12-year-old girl who was not properly dressed, as well as a pregnant woman whose veil slipped off, exposing part of her back.
Mali, once a beacon of stability in the region, has become the world's newest failed state in the nearly eight months since renegade soldiers overthrew the democratically elected president in the capital, located in the south. The chaos that followed created the opening that allowed the Islamic rebels to penetrate the best-guarded cities in the north.
In a statement on Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund announced that Mali's GDP is forecast to shrink 1.5 percent. The rebel takeover of the north has "severely affected" Mali's economy by disrupting agricultural production and trade relations, said the statement. At the same time, tourism has ground to a halt and several of the capital's flagship hotels have closed.
Both the United States and France have identified the al-Qaida threat in northern Mali as a key security risk, not just to the region but also to Europe and beyond. Both Washington and Paris have offered logistical support to the future intervention. Later this month, the plan will be presented to the United Nations Security Council, the final step before the operation can go ahead.
Calliimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.