BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Mali's president acknowledged Wednesday that the Islamist group carrying out public executions and amputations in the country's north is made up mostly of Malians and not foreign fighters, a declaration that appears aimed at fostering dialogue with the group.
The move comes as Ansar Dine negotiates with the Malian government and West African regional powers push for a military intervention to oust the Islamists who seized power earlier this year.
The comments mark the first time Mali's leader has acknowledged that the Ansar Dine group includes mostly Malians. Previously the government had maintained the group included militants from al-Qaida's North Africa branch and other foreigners who invaded Mali in the wake of a coup in March.
On Wednesday, though, President Dioncounda Traore said Ansar Dine fighters "are mainly made up of our fellow countrymen."
He also noted the presence in northern Mali of Nigerian terror group Boko Haram and al-Qaida's North Africa branch, or AQIM, in the area, which has known links to Ansar Dine.
Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith," controls the towns of Kidal and Timbuktu in northern Mali, where they have imposed a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah there.
They've stoned to death a couple accused of adultery and accused thieves have had their hands hacked off hacked off. Ansar Dine also has recruited children as young as 12 into their ranks and forced women to wear head-to-toe veils.
While Ansar Dine may be made up of mostly Malian nationals, there are credible reports of its links to AQIM, al-Qaida's North Africa branch, which operates in northern Mali.
The cousin of Ansar Dine's leader is one of the people in charge of an AQIM brigade in Kidal, according to Stephanie Pezard, a political scientist who is preparing a report on Mali for the Washington-based Rand Corporation.
Ansar Dine has emerged as one of the dominant groups among those who first took control of northern Mali in the wake of a March military coup in the country's distant capital that created a power vacuum. Their leaders in recent weeks have tried to make concessions, including distancing themselves from terrorism, even though many analysts question their sincerity.
Still, they are seen as the only Islamic group in the north that can be brought to the negotiating table, in part because their leaders are all Malian nationals, who own property in north Mali, and stand to lose if an international military operation is sanctioned.
By contrast, MUJAO, an extremist group controlling the city of Gao, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, are led by Algerian and Mauritanian commanders. Their ideology is in sync with al-Qaida's and their spokesmen have made clear that they have no interest in negotiating with the "infidel" government of Mali.
The initial fighting prompted hundreds of thousands of Malians to flee the north, but many have since returned because of economic hardships elsewhere — even though it means living under Shariah law, where a person can be lashed for possessing cigarettes.
A proposed military intervention backed by the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS is still awaiting final approval from the United Nations.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.