OUAGADOUGOU - One of the main Islamist groups controlling northern Mali offered important concessions Wednesday, as plans to send an international military force to the country gathered steam.
Ansar Dine, which in Arabic means "Defenders of the Faith", said it was ready to help rid the region of "terrorism" and "foreign groups", and that it no longer wanted to impose Islamic law, or sharia, across all of Mali.
If the Islamist group were to negotiate with the Malian authorities, "one can foresee ways and means in which one can get rid of terrorism, drug trafficking and foreign groups," said Mohamed Ag Aharib, spokesman for an Ansar Dine delegation that has been talking with mediators in Burkina Faso.
"We don't agree with taking hostages and drug trafficking," he said.
Mali rapidly imploded after a coup in March allowed ethnic Tuareg desert nomads, who had relaunched a decades-old rebellion for independence, to seize the main towns in the country's vast desert north with the help of Islamist allies.
The secular separatists were quickly sidelined by the Islamists, who implemented their version of strict sharia and operated across the region with impunity, sparking growing international concern.
Ansar Dine's comments further distance the group -- whose members are mostly Malian Tuaregs -- from the mainly foreign Islamists of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) who have been occupying the north alongside Ansar Dine since April.
Top US General Carter Ham on Wednesday urged a global fight against AQIM, saying it could "export violence" to the West.
Ham, the head of the US Africa Command, also said AQIM was linked to a deadly September 11 attack on the US mission in Benghazi that killed US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others.
"If we, the international community, don't find a way to help the Africans address this threat, it's going to worsen," he said.
Niger's Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum accused former Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure of complacency in handling AQIM, thereby allowing the group to take root in the north of the country.
"It was since 2002 that AQIM set up in the north of Mali. The Malian government of that time was particularly complacent," he said.
Malian authorities had received "precise information from Niger or Mauritania on AQIM's network" which could have helped to "cut off their supply routes" and weaken the group, said Bazoum.
He stressed the need to combat "AQIM and the foreigners".
"They are the most powerful because it's them who control the drug trade. We must chase them out," he said.
Ansar Dine, AQIM and MUJAO have imposed a brutal regime in the north, stoning to death unmarried lovers, amputating thieves' hands and feet and whipping drinkers and smokers.
Islamists in Timbuktu have also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines that have been revered for centuries and are classed as World Heritage Sites, but which the radicals consider blasphemous.
But Ansar Dine has recently sent envoys to Burkina Faso and Algeria in a bid to negotiate an end to the crisis, and has also called on other fighters in northern Mali to join them in political dialogue.
Mauritania would close the border
The growing readiness for dialogue comes after the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) approved over the weekend plans to send a force of 3,300 troops, logistically backed by Western nations, to reconquer northern Mali.
The African Union on Tuesday endorsed the plan and the United Nations is expected to pass a resolution approving the mission, though it remains unclear when the first troops could be deployed.
Ansar Dine, which has previously said it wanted to see sharia across northern Mali, backtracked on its demands Wednesday, saying instead it would only push for the hardline religious law in the Kidal area, a sparsely populated region in the country's northeast.
African Union Commission head Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on Wednesday urged armed groups in Mali to sever ties with "terrorists".
"We'd like to convince the armed Malian groups to come to the negotiations and to de-link themselves with the terrorists and criminal groups," Zuma said.
"The preparations for the intervention are continuing, and we'll take it step by step," she added, stressing that she preferred a peaceful resolution.
Also Wednesday, Mauritania said it was planning to close its immense border with Mali if a military force was deployed to tackle the armed Islamist groups.
Mauritania was "worried of the consequences of this war on the country and is currently preparing a plan to close its borders with Mali and respond to any eventual threat," a Mauritanian military source said, reiterating that his country did not plan on sending troops into Mali.
Algeria on Tuesday said it would take "appropriate measures" to ensure the defence of its interests and said it would protect its borders "to the maximum".
The closure of the Mauritanian and Algerian borders -- spanning hundreds of kilometres (miles) -- with Mali is primarily aimed at stopping armed Islamist groups from encroaching on their territory.
Landlocked Mali neighbours several nations but the bulk of its northern territory abuts Mauritania, Algeria and Niger.