One of the main Islamist groups occupying northern Mali split yesterday, with the breakaway faction saying it was ready for talks to end a two-week-old French-led offensive, amid growing concerns over rights abuses by government troops.
The first of 6,000 troops pledged by African nations to support France's intervention started heading north, moving closer to where a trio of Al Qaeda-linked groups seized in April after a coup in Bamako.
Cracks emerged in the rebel front, however, when a new faction announced it had broken away from Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).
The newly-formed Islamic Movement for Azawad said in a statement that it "rejected all forms of extremism and terrorism and was committed to fighting them", adding that it wanted a "peaceful solution" to the Mali crisis.
The use of the Tamasheq term Azawad appeared to further signal a willingness among the group's Tuareg ranks to distance themselves from al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Malian insurgency's mainly foreign leadership.
The statement said the new group was composed entirely of Malian nationals.
The new group is led by Alghabasse Ag Intalla, the scion of a leading Tuareg family from Kidal, and a former negotiator from the group's moderate wing.
West African and Algerian negotiators have for months been trying to get Ansar Dine to sever links with AQIM and its offshoot the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which both essentially comprise foreign fighters.
The UN has authorised the deployment of a 3,300-strong force under the auspices of 15-nation West African bloc Ecowas.
Most of the estimated 1,000 African soldiers who have arrived in Mali are still in Bamako, but a Malian defence source said a group of 160 troops from Burkina Faso had started making its way to central areas nearer the frontline.
France's surprise decision to intervene on January 11 received broad international support but recent reports of abuses by Malian troops have triggered concern.
The European Union said that it was worried at reports that Tuaregs and Arabs had been killed by Malian forces, stoking fears of systematic reprisals against the region's light-skinned residents.
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said that in the central town of Sevare, at least 31 people were executed, and some bodies dumped in wells, citing evidence gathered by local researchers.
Human Rights Watch said witnesses had reported "credible information" of soldiers sexually abusing women in a village near Sevare, and called on the government to urgently investigate.