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'ECOWAS needs to lead Mali interventions'

SA says it understands the need for France's swift intervention to stop a terrorist threat in Mali.

The Deputy Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation,Ebrahim Ebrahim, briefed the media on international developments on 24 January 2013. Picture: GCIS

PRETORIA/ MARKALA/DAKAR - South Africa understands the need for France's swift intervention to stop a terrorist threat in Mali,but it believes Africans should be ones taking the lead in addressing the scourge, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation said on Thursday.

The department's deputy minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim, said South Africa supported the United Nations Security Council resolution for an African-led mission to Mali.

President Jacob Zuma was called by his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, who informed him that France had decided on the request of the Malian government to intervene in Mali.

"It seems there was a need for some type of rapid intervention in Mali because of the terrorists' threat - posed by the terrorists that were threatening to take over the capital."

Ebrahim said South Africa wanted the Economic Community of West African States to take the lead in helping Mali.

ISLAMIST MILITANT GROUPS SPLIT

A split emerged on Thursday in the alliance of Islamist militant groups occupying northern Mali as French and African troops prepared a major ground offensive aimed at driving al Qaeda and its allies from their safe haven in the Sahara.

A senior negotiator from the Ansar Dine rebels who helped seize the north from Mali's government last year said he was now part of a faction that wanted talks and rejected the group's alliance with al Qaeda's North African franchise AQIM.

It was unclear how many fighters had joined the new Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) faction. But the announcement will encourage international negotiators who have long sought to prise apart the Islamist alliance, seen as a major threat by Washington and other Western and regional powers.

"There has to be a ceasefire so there can be talks," Alghabass Ag Intallah, a member of the Tuareg tribe, told Reuters from the Ansar Dine stronghold of Kidal in northeast Mali. The new MIA would focus its efforts on seeking autonomy for the northern homeland of the desert Tuaregs, he said.

For nearly two weeks, French aircraft have been bombarding Islamist rebel positions, vehicles and stores in the centre and north of Mali as a ground force of African troops assembles to launch a UN-backed military intervention against the rebels.

The strikes halted a rebel advance further south. French and Malian ground troops have also retaken several towns and have been mopping up after the insurgents avoided a head-on fight, abandoning vehicles and slipping away into the bush.

On Thursday, a Reuters correspondent saw around 160 troops from Burkina Faso deployed in the dusty Malian town of Markala - the first West African troops to link up with French and Malian forces.

REPORTS OF REPRISAL KILLINGS

News of the French and African advances have been overshadowed by allegations from residents and rights groups that Malian government soldiers have executed Tuaregs and Arabs accused of collaborating with the rebels.

Mali's army has denied the allegations and the government ordered the armed forces to respect human rights.

But the reports of killings of lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs by Mali's mostly black army has raised the risk that the internationally-backed intervention against the Islamist fighters in the north could trigger an ethnic bloodbath.

"These people took up arms against us, our colleagues were killed ... I no longer have any Tuareg friends," one Malian soldier, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Outside Diabaly, a town of mud-brick huts amid mango trees surrounded by irrigation canals 350 km north of the capital Bamako, Malian army soldiers captured a group of suspected Islamists found hiding in a local house, said a Malian officer, Captain Samasa, who only gave his first name.

The captives were taken away in a truck, witnesses said.

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