Mali FM tells rebels 'time running out' for peace deal

By John Irish PARIS (Reuters) - Mali's foreign minister said on Monday Tuareg rebels were running out of time to seal a peace accord that would distance them from jihadi groups who are staging violent attacks in the West African country. Mali's government signed up to a preliminary peace proposal on March 1 meant to end fighting with the Tuarag-led northern separatists, but the rebels have demanded more time before agreeing to any accord. Following attacks over the weekend, including one targeting a restaurant in Mali's capital Bamako, Abdoulaye Diop said the government wanted the deal signed by the end of March to ensure unity in the face of the militant Islamist threat. A Sahara-based Islamist group called al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the restaurant attack, the first in Bamako for years, that killed five people, including two foreigners. "Time is not on our side. For us their hesitations are creating an opportunity for these terrorist groups to fill the void and whose objective is clear: derail the peace process," Diop said in an interview with news agencies. The United Nations-brokered agreement aims to tackle decades of uprisings in northern Mali, where Western and regional powers worry al Qaeda-linked militants could return two years after a French military intervention drove them out. From 2012, the militants occupied large swathes of the northern desert region, initially sealing alliances with the Tuareg separatists before turning against them. "The enemies of peace are these terrorist groups who claim (to be acting in the name of) Islam and the drug traffickers who share the same objectives," Diop said. "Trafficker by day, jihadist by night, these groups don't want a state and want to operate in complete freedom." "EVIL AGENDA" "For us, a political agreement will allow us to isolate them and to see who has an agenda for Mali and who has an evil and harmful agenda," Diop added. Saturday's gun attack in Bamako raised fears the southern capital may become targeted more often by militants. It was followed by a separate attack on a U.N. peacekeeper camp in the northern rebel stronghold of Kidal. Diop, in Paris for talks with French officials on the situation in Mali after the attacks, said authorities were reinforcing security measures across the country. While France's focus has shifted to regional counter-terrorism, the 10,000-strong U.N. mission that deployed following the swift French offensive in Mali has inherited a trickier task of rebuilding a broken state. (Editing by Gareth Jones)