The Bamako government and armed groups from northern Mali were to launch tough negotiations in Algiers Wednesday for an elusive peace deal, with parts of the country still mired in conflict.
Speaking before the talks began, Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said his government was prepared to go "as far as possible" within its "red lines" to strike a peace deal with the mainly Tuareg rebels and "forge an understanding between Malians."
But as Algerian officials have noted, the armed movements will be negotiating from a position of strength, as they effectively control more than half of the vast Sahel country.
"The government is ready to go as far as possible within the red lines that have been drawn," Diop said on Wednesday morning in Algiers.
Those red lines include "respect for territorial unity, the unity of Mali and the republican form of the Malian state," he told Agence France Presse.
While separatist demands have officially been dropped by the rebel Tuareg groups attending the talks, they are demanding greater autonomy or a special status for northern Mali, known by the Tuareg as "Azawad".
The parties needed to reach a power-sharing consensus between, "on the one hand, armed groups who want autonomy for northern Mali ... (and on the other) a government open to any idea except independence," an Algerian diplomat said on the eve of the talks.
After inflicting a "major defeat" on the Malian army in the Tuareg region of Kidal, the rebel movements now occupy nearly two-thirds of the country and come to Algiers "in a position of strength," the diplomat told journalists.
At least 50 soldiers were killed in the skirmishes in May between the army and a coalition of rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA).
A ceasefire obtained by Mauritanian leader and African Union (AU) chief Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has been in place since.
On Tuesday, the two sides exchanged 86 prisoners in Bamako, -- 45 Malian soldiers and police and 41 Tuareg militants -- in a goodwill gesture ahead of the negotiations.
The freed rebels were to be flown to northern Mali.
The Algiers meeting brings together Mali's various warring factions for the first time since an interim agreement in June 2013 paved the way for nationwide parliamentary and presidential polls following a military coup the previous year.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected in August, but peace talks have since stalled, and northern Mali has witnessed a spike in deadly violence by Islamist and separatist militants.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, has stressed the need for urgent action, with the security situation deteriorating and inter-communal violence in the north presenting a threat "more dangerous than anything else".
A French legionnaire was killed on Monday in what Paris described as a suicide car bomb attack near the northern town of Gao.
Groups attending the Algiers meeting include the MNLA, the HCUA and two branches of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA).
Armed groups close to the Bamako government will also be represented at the talks, with the foreign minister heading the government delegation.
Mali has excluded several Islamist groups linked to al-Qaida which occupied northern Mali for close to 10 months before being ousted by the French-led Serval military offensive launched in January 2013.
The talks begin as French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrives in Bamako to sign a defense agreement with Mali, after Paris said on Sunday that it was winding up the Serval offensive after 18 months.
It will be replaced by a wider counter-terrorism operation, codenamed Barkhan, to be implemente