(French President Francois Hollande, left, meets with Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou. Photo: AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
PARIS (AP) — France's president called Thursday for stepped-up talks between Mali's government and any leaders from its breakaway north "who reject terrorism," even as African nations geared up for a possible military operation against Islamic extremists there.
President Francois Hollande's comments suggested a growing openness to dialogue with the extremists, but he remained committed to supporting the military planning effort.
Northern Mali fell to Islamic extremists in April, after coup leaders toppled the government in Bamako, Mali's capital. Fearing that northern Mali could become the latest hotbed of terrorism, France has been a driving force in international efforts to bolster Mali's army to drive the Islamists from power.
Hollande spoke with interim Mali President Dioncounda Traore by phone on Thursday, partly to detail European efforts to help strengthen Mali's army.
In recent days, representatives from the most moderate of three al-Qaida-linked groups that control northern Mali have been meeting with Burkina Faso's president, appointed as a mediator.
"France reiterates its wish that political dialogue will intensify between Malian authorities and representatives of northern populations who reject terrorism," Hollande's office said in a statement. "The acceleration of this dialogue must accompany the progress in African military-planning efforts."
Earlier this week, the African Union approved a plan that calls for 3,300 African troops to be deployed in order to win back Mali's north. European countries including France and Germany have expressed a willingness to provide military trainers and logistics support, but have stopped short of committing combat troops.
France, like many European countries, fears that the arid, northern Sahel region of Mali could become a breeding ground for terrorism, where al-Qaida and its allies could plot hostage-takings and attacks in Europe or beyond.
France has millions of people whose families hail from former French colonies in north and west Africa. Authorities have long been concerned that French-born militants could travel abroad for terrorism training and return home later to possibly carry out attacks.
French authorities are already investigating two French citizens who were arrested in Mali and neighboring Niger and are suspected of seeking to join up with the al-Qaida-linked extremists, a judicial official told The Associated Press.
Ibrahim Ouattara, a 24-year-old native of the northern Paris suburb of Aubervilliers who has dual French and Malian nationality, was arrested inside Mali this month and remains in custody there, the official said.
Separately, a 27-year-old Frenchman was arrested in August in Niger and has since been handed over to authorities in France, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss terrorism cases publicly.
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