OUAGADOUGOU - Ansar Dine, an Islamist group occupying northern Mali, called Tuesday for other fighters to join them in political dialogue, as military chiefs plot strategies to expel the extremists by force.
As diplomatic efforts for a military solution to the Islamist occupation of Mali's vast arid north intensify, Ansar Dine has dispatched envoys to Burkina Faso and Algeria in a bid to negotiate an end to the crisis.
After meeting with the chief regional mediator, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the Ansar Dine delegation urged "all the armed movements" to follow its lead with the aim of establishing "an inclusive political dialogue."
In a declaration read by envoy Mohamed Aharid, they called for "a total halt to hostilities, the respect of fundamental rights and freedoms, the return of all displaced people and refugees and the creation of an environment conducive to adopting and implementing a full peace agreement that addresses all the deep causes of the crisis.
"Ansar Dine rejects all forms of extremism and terrorism," the delegation added.
Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith, in Arabic) along with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have implemented an extreme form of sharia in the cities they control, stoning, whipping and amputating transgressors.
Ansar Dine has also destroyed centuries-old cultural treasures in the fabled city of Timbuktu which they denounced as "idolatrous" to their radical brand of Islam.
Mediators have approached talks with the hope Ansar Dine will cut ties with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose alliance with the Islamists has triggered fears in the region and among Western powers that the zone could become a new haven for terrorists.
Mali, once one of the region's most stable democracies, rapidly imploded after an ethnic Tuareg independence rebellion began in January and overwhelmed the state's poorly equipped army.
Angry over the government's handling of the crisis, soldiers staged a coup in March, which only made it easier for the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to seize a string of desert towns.
The secular separatists were quickly sidelined by Islamists fighting on their flanks who had little interest in their aspirations for an independent homeland and set about implementing strict sharia.
Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole, a key mediator in the Malian crisis, urged Ansar Dine to turn words into actions and "refrain from unnecessary provocations."
He stressed that the Islamist group had made no reference to the issue of Islamic law.
A Tuareg rebel leader welcomed Ansar Dine's apparently softer stance.
The MNLA "congratulates Ansar Dine for its statement, in which it distances itself from terrorism and extremism," Ibrahim Ag Assaleh told AFP in Burkina Faso, where he is now based.
The Tuareg rebels are prepared to hold talks with Ansar Dine, leading eventually to peace negotiations with Mali's transitional government, he added.
Ansar Dine's top leader Iyad Ag Ghaly led a 1990 Tuareg rebellion in Mali.
In recent weeks Western powers have thrown their support behind a planned military intervention and last week experts met in the Malian capital to drawn up a strategy to oust the Islamists.
ECOWAS military bosses need to approve the details, before sending the plan onto regional heads of state and finally, the United Nations Security Council on November 26.
"It is about coming to a rapid agreement on an operational concept to help Mali quickly reconquer its north," said Ivory Coast's army chief General Soumaila Bakayoko.
The United Nations wants clarification on the makeup of a regional force, the level of participation from various west African states, and the financing and military means available.
Facing a violent ouster, Ansar Dine also declared its "availability to immediately engage in a process of political dialogue with the Malian transitional authorities."
The Islamist group also has a delegation in Algiers, where European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Tuesday suggested sending a European "support mission" to Bamako.
Last week US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the regional heavyweight to lobby for support in ousting the extremists from Mali.
Algeria, with its superior military capabilities and its 1,400-kilometre (900-mile) border with Mali, is seen as key to any military operation but has been hesitant to get involved, preferring a negotiated solution.
It is expected that up to 4,000 African troops could be sent to Mali, regional experts have said, without ruling out the possibility of non-African troops taking part in the military operation.