A French-led military operation is underway in Mali to drive back the Islamist fighters who launched a surprise push southward toward the capital Bamako two weeks ago. An African ground force is being deployed to support French and Malian troops.

“We want to wage our war and not that of AQIM,” Ag Intallah said by telephone, referring to al Qaeda’s North African wing which has been at the heart of the takeover of the vast desert north by Malian and foreign Islamist fighters.

“There has to be a ceasefire so there can be talks,” he said, speaking from the town of Kidal, a Tuareg stronghold in northeast Mali seized by Ansar Dine last year. “The aim is to speak about the situation in the north.”