Nine months after Tuareg and Islamists rebels took over northern Mali, the president of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, welcomed representatives from Ansar Dine, from the MNLA and from Mali’s transitional government to his nation’s capital. The goal was to try to start talks to resolve the crisis. On Tuesday, they agreed to "cease hostilities" – though there is not currently any fighting – and pledged to continue negotiations. Our Observer explains that the cultural proximity between the Tuareg separatists of the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) and the Islamists of Ansar Dine will be a key factor for brokering a new peace in the north. 
On paper, the three parties’ goals seem contradictory. The MNLA, which is a secular Tuareg group, is fighting for the creation of an independent Tuareg state in Mali’s north. Though it first sided with the Islamists to take over Mali’s north, MNLA fighters were soon chased out of key cities by their former allies. Ansar Dine, which is one of three armed Islamist groups that controls the north – along with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) – doesn’t care about establishing an independent state. These Islamist groups’ main goal is to establish sharia law in northern Mali. And finally, there’s the Malian government, which wants to take back control of the northern half of its territory.
Negotiations may prove difficult. Ansar Dine has accused the Malian government of attacking nomadic camps in northern Mali. And, at least officially, the MNLA calls Ansar Dine a “terrorist group”. However, according to our Observer, these two groups are actually in rather close contact, and similar in many ways.

"We talked about our shared Tuareg culture, and we even cracked some jokes"

Assan Ag Midal served as an observer for the MNLA during the three-party meeting, which took place in a hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou.
I arrived in Ouagadougou on Friday. As an observer for the MNLA, I didn’t participate in the negotiations, but I stayed at the same hotel as the representatives from all three sides.
Of course, before the discussions began, people from different sides ran into each other in the hotel’s lobby. The MNLA’s members are Tuareg, as are some of those from Ansar Dine, so that makes small talk easier – we talked about our villages, our families, our Tuareg culture, and we even cracked some jokes. Some of us have known each other for years; some of the members of Ansar Dine are former MNLA members, and vice versa. We also ran into people from the Malian government, but with them, little more was said than “hello”.
"Both sides might eventually be able to agree to a partial application of sharia law"
The proximity between the MNLA and Ansar Dine gives me hope that we will find a compromise between these two sides. Ansar Dine won’t give up on implementing sharia law, but my feeling is that most people living in the north don’t want to live under radical Islamic rule. [The majority of the north’s residents are Muslim, but much more moderate.] Both sides might eventually be able to agree to a partial application of sharia law, which wouldn’t include corporal physical punishment like cutting thieves’ hands. Yes, we [the MNLA] suffered military defeats in the north and don’t have any permanent bases there. But I think Ansar Dine knows very well that most of the population agrees with our non-religious view of governance.
Some say that the best way to convince Ansar Dine to negotiate is to offer its leaders important positions in the future state of Azawad. If we can reach an agreement, I think we might also be able to get Ansar Dine to cut ties with Mujao and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.