BAMAKO, February 18, 2014 – Morocco’s King Mohammed VI arrived in Mali Tuesday for a five-day tour to support the country’s peace process, with Rabat aiming to wrest the diplomatic initiative from its more dominant regional rival Algeria.
The king was welcomed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita at the airport as he began his first visit since attending the Malian leader’s inauguration in September.
He was greeted by a 21-canon salute, a traditional dance by masked performers and the national anthems of the two countries before heading into central Bamako along streets thronged with thousands of well-wishers who chanted: “Long live the king!”
The visit takes place with preliminary meetings under way in Bamako ahead of peace negotiations between the government and armed insurgents in the north, including the ethnic Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
Mali was thrown into chaos in 2012 when the MNLA launched an offensive in the northern desert helped by Islamist militants linked to Al-Qaeda who then cast aside the Tuareg rebels and took the region for themselves.
The Islamists were driven out after nine months by a French-led military intervention launched in January 2013. But they are regrouping in the desert and remain an ever-present threat to security.
The operation was backed by Morocco which, despite having no border with Mali, counts Islamist militants throughout Africa’s Sahel and Maghreb regions as a high priority security threat.
Algiers was the preferred location for various peace agreements in the 1990s and early 2000s between the Malian government and the Tuareg, who are spread across several countries in the region, including Algeria.
But Morocco, a major trading partner with Mali, has been challenging Algeria’s traditional position as mediator between the government in Bamako and the Tuareg.
With Keita’s blessing, Mohammed VI received MNLA chief Bilal Ag Acherif in January, encouraging him back to the table with the Malian government after the rebels had walked out on UN-sponsored talks in Algiers.