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Armed groups in northern Mali commit to peace talks

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A Tuareg man holds the flag of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MLNA) during a demonstration in Kidal, northern Mali on July 28, 2013. Armed factions from Mali's diverse and bitterly-opposed desert communities have committed to peace talks to end an 18-month crisis triggered by a Tuareg uprising.AFP/File

Armed factions from Mali's diverse and bitterly-opposed desert communities have committed to peace talks to end an 18-month crisis triggered by a Tuareg uprising, they said on Wednesday.

The groups made the statement after a three-day meeting in the capital Bamako of the main Tuareg separatist organisations with the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) and the mainly-black United Forces of Patriotic Resistance (UFPR).

They presented an agreement committing to dialogue to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, said Hamada Ag Bibi, of the High Council for the Unity of Azawad, which represented the Tuareg side along with the larger National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

"We prefer dialogue to war as a way of finding solutions to our problems," Ag Bibi said.

The agreement, seen by AFP, commits the signatories to seeking "a solution through dialogue to our problems" and adds: "We will not use violence as a means of expression."

Harouna Toure, of the UFPR, said however that the document was merely "a good first step" rather than a binding peace deal.

Mali's vast northern desert is a mix of ethnic groups, with Tuareg desert nomads, Arabs and the black African Fulani and Songhai having lived together for centuries in a region made famous by the ancient city of Timbuktu.

The Tuareg, who have long felt marginalised by the southern government, relaunched a decades-old rebellion for autonomy last year under the MNLA.

They used the chaos following a military coup in March 2012 to occupy and declare independence for northern Mali before losing the territory to their former allies, Islamists wanting to create a hardline Islamic state.

The Malian government, supported by a French-led military intervention which routed the Islamists in January, regained control of its northern cities, paving the way for elections in August from which Keita emerged as the new president.