BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali's government said on Tuesday that it asked the country's main Islamic body to open peace talks with leaders of al Qaeda's local affiliate in an effort to end a decade of conflict.
Malian authorities have previously endorsed the idea of talks and have quietly backed local peace initiatives with the militants as security deteriorates and Islamist groups expand beyond their traditional strongholds.
But the latest announcement by the religious affairs ministry marks by far the most concrete step toward negotiations with militant leaders.
Such an approach is vigorously opposed by Mali's chief military ally France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, said in June that French troops would not conduct joint operations with countries that negotiate with Islamist militants.
The minister of religious affairs asked the High Islamic Council (HCI) to open negotiations with the leaders of the al Qaeda-linked Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), ministry spokesperson Khalil Camara told Reuters.
"The minister met the High Islamic Council last week to inform them of the government's desire to negotiate with all the radical Malian groups, (including) Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Koufa," Camara said.
Ag Ghali is JNIM's chief and Amadou Koufa leads JNIM's most active affiliate in central Mali. Both are frequently targeted by French bombing campaigns.
Mohamed Kimbiri, a senior HCI official, confirmed the body had been tasked with negotiating with Malian JNIM leaders but was instructed not to negotiate with foreign Islamists. Another HCI official said no talks had yet taken place.
The HCI mediated talks in central Mali's Niono Circle area - quietly backed by national authorities - that led to a peace deal in March between JNIM militants and traditional hunters that oppose them.
But the deal broke down in July and violence in the area has since surged.
The government's actions come with relations between Mali and France, which first intervened against the militants in 2013, at a low point.
Macron announced in June that France would begin drawing down its 5,000-troop mission in the Sahel, leading Mali to accuse France of abandoning it and float the idea of using Russian mercenaries.
(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo and Aaron Ross; Writing by Cooper Inveen; Editing by Giles Elgood)