PARIS (Reuters) - French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Thursday there could only be a resolution to the Tuareg-led rebellion in the north of Mali via political dialogue and called for regional cooperation to fight al Qaeda's expansion in the area.
Long one of the most stable democracies in West Africa, Mali has been plunged into turmoil since a widely condemned coup on March 22 that emboldened Tuareg rebels to seize half the country in their quest for a northern homeland.
"There will not be a military solution with the Tuaregs. There needs to be a political solution," Juppe said, adding that countries in the region had to begin talks to accomplish this.
Mali's MNLA separatist rebels said they had ended their fight to create an "Azawad" state on the edge of the Sahara on Thursday after achieving their goal, according to the group's website.
The rebels, battling alongside Islamist militants who want to impose sharia, or Islamic law, swept through northern Mali last week, pushing government forces from Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the three northern regions of Mali that the MNLA says will form the new state.
Juppe said Paris was in contact with the various players in Mali, including the MNLA, which he said was a credible interlocutor. He said there was a clear distinction between that group which was seeking independence and the Ansar Dine Islamists, who had been "infiltrated" by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
"They have another objective which is to establish an Islamist regime in Mali and the Sahel as a whole," Juppe said. "I don't see how we could have dialogue with AQIM whose objective is to kill our citizens."
France, the former colonial ruler, is Mali's fourth-largest aid donor - a vital source of income in one of the world's poorest countries - and also trains and equips government forces. Since the rebellion, it has suspended its cooperation, but has maintained aid to the population.
Paris has advised its 5,000 citizens living in the West African state to leave. The escalating crisis also worries France given that AQIM is holding six French hostages in the region.
Before the coup, West African leaders had been considering sending a force to help Mali secure its north, where rebels, Islamists and smugglers have long mixed.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is still weighing military plans after imposing sanctions on Mali, but officials say the junta would have to stand down before outsiders would help Bamako.
"First and foremost we want regional cooperation between Algeria, ECOWAS countries, Nigeria, Mauritania, etc. for a strategy to fight terrorism in the Sahel," Juppe said.
The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday also threw its support behind efforts by ECOWAS to restore order in Mali.
Juppe said he believed a mediation effort to restore constitutional order and remove the junta led by Burkina Faso President Blaise Compoare was beginning to yield results.
He said it could take time for ECOWAS to deploy 3,000 troops in Mali, and that France would therefore be ready to provide logistical support, though he ruled out direct military intervention.
"I don't think French troops would be welcomed either by Algeria or anybody else. The answer must first come from regional states," he said.
Speaking to reporters, President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested military intervention was an option, but only as a last resort.
"France cannot envisage any intervention without the regional powers first trying to calm the situation and unless there was a U.N. Security Council mandate," he said.
Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Osborn