BAMAKO - Malian government negotiators come to the table with rebel groups on Wednesday hoping to strike an elusive peace deal, with the country mired in conflict a year after returning to democracy.
Riven by ethnic rivalries, a separatist rebellion and an Islamist insurgency in its vast desert north, the west African nation has struggled for stability and peace since a military coup in 2012.
The talks in the capital of neighbouring Algeria will be the first to bring together the various warring factions since an interim agreement last June paved the way for nationwide elections.
Since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power negotiations have stalled, however, and northern Mali has seen a spike in violence by Islamist and separatist militants.
The talks follow the death on Monday of a French legionnaire in what Paris described as a suicide car bomb attack near the northern town of Gao.
Skirmishes in May between the Malian army and a coalition of rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) which saw at least 50 soldiers lose their lives in the Tuareg region of Kidal.
A ceasefire obtained by Mauritanian leader and African Union (AU) chief Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has been in place since, but the Malian government has denounced the "concentrations of armed groups" in the desert.
The MNLA, the HCUA, and two branches of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) will be represented in Algiers, where a government delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop.
But Mali has excluded several Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda which occupied northern Mali for close to 10 months in 2012 before being ousted by the French-led Serval military offensive.
Negotiations will take place in three phases, according to former prime minister Modibo Keita, the president's envoy at the talks.
The different sides will begin by thrashing out a "roadmap" for the negotiations, before beginning the talks themselves and finally signing a "final peace agreement", Keita said.
The negotiations will be overseen by a "college of mediators" including Algeria, the AU and the 15-member regional bloc ECOWAS, and a "college of facilitators" made up of delegates from the European Union, France, Niger and Nigeria.
Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara has warned that the process will "require effort" and "compromises on both sides".
While he has suggested that the government is willing to make concessions, he says there is a "red line" it is not willing to cross -- any talk of compromising Mali's territorial integrity or secular status.
A source from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, stressed the need for urgent action, with the security situation deteriorating and inter-communal violence in the north presenting a threat "more dangerous than anything else".
Sections of the media and opposition politicians have questioned the choice of Algeria as a venue for the talks, however.
"Every time we run to (Algeria) and it's always the same result: nothing. Algeria is the country that has been most involved in the resolution of the crisis in Mali and has never been able to find solution," weekly newspaper Nouvelle Liberation said in a recent editorial.
Djiguiba Keita, from the opposition Party for National Rebirth, invoked the terminology of medieval feudal Europe in a withering description of Mali as Algeria's "vassal", or subordinate.
The talks begin with French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arriving in Bamako to sign a defence agreement with Mali, after Paris said on Sunday that it was winding up its Serval offensive after 18 months.
It will be replaced by a wider counter-terrorism operation, codenamed Barkhane, to be implemented in partnership with Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
Le Drian said around 3,000 French soldiers would be part of the operation, 1,000 of whom would stay in northern Mali.
Drones, helicopters, fighter jets, armoured vehicles and transport planes will also take part in Operation Barkhane -- the name of a crescent-shaped sand dune in the desert -- which will have its headquarters in the Chadian capital N'Djamena.
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