Mali's Ansar Dine Islamists in humanitarian aid deal

Members of a delegation of the Ansar Dine in Burkina Faso, 6 November 2012 The Ansar Dine delegation addressed the media after meeting President Compaore

One of the Islamist groups in northern Mali has agreed to allow humanitarian aid groups into its territory.

Ansar Dine's announcement was made after talks with the regional mediator, Burkina Faso's leader Blaise Compaore.

The militants also agreed to commit to peace talks with Mali's government and observe a ceasefire.

Last month, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution paving the way for an African force to end the Islamists' occupation of northern Mali.

Few aid groups have had access to Mali's vast northern desert region since Ansar Dine and its allies took advantage of the chaos sparked by an army-led coup in March.

The military had been trying to put down a Tuareg rebellion that began in January, but after the putsch the rebel groups quickly took over the region's main towns.

The Islamists, who have links to al-Qaeda, subsequently fell out with the Tuareg groups and consolidated their power, introducing strict Islamic law.

Ansar Dine has been widely condemned for destroying ancient Muslim shrines in the World Heritage site of Timbuktu - as it says the shrines, revered by followers of the moderate Sufi sect, promote idolatry and are therefore unIslamic.

Mali's main rebel groups

  • Ansar Dine - Islamists based in Timbuktu
  • Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) - Islamists based in Gao
  • National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) - Tuareg fighters ousted by Islamists from former northern strongholds
'Return home'

Tens of thousands of people have fled the unrest this year - many of them taking refuge in neighbouring Burkina Faso.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, for those who have remained in northern Mali the price of food in markets has been too high for most to afford - and the health service and supply of clean drinking water have been affected by the crisis.

The BBC's Mathieu Bonkoungou in the Burkinabe capital, Ouagadougou, says Ansar Dine representatives said in a declaration, after meeting President Compaore, that the group would allow free passage to anyone in its territory wanting to deliver humanitarian aid.

Military leaders from the West Africa bloc Ecowas sit on November 6, 2012 in Bamako Military chiefs from West Africa are meeting in Bamako about their intervention plans

The declaration also called for refugees to return to their homes "and the creation of an environment conducive to adopting and implementing a full peace agreement that addresses all the deep causes of the crisis", AFP news agency reports.

Ansar Dine would also urge other armed groups to enter into dialogue with the authorities in Bamako, it said.

In the last few months, there has been a huge international push to restore stability to Mali.

The regional group Ecowas has led the mediation process which saw the formation of a new unity government in Bamako in August.

Ecowas military chiefs are currently meeting in Bamako to finalise the plans to send 3,000 troops into northern Mali.

On 12 October, the UN Security Council gave Ecowas and the African Union a 45-day deadline to submit the details of the offer.

There have also been recent reports of groups of foreign fighters from Algeria and Western Sahara arriving in the northern Islamist strongholds of Timbuktu and Gao.

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