"TUAREGS seize Timbuktu," ran the headlines in newspapers around the world this week.

It's not often a foreign news story these days sounds like something from a Boy's Own annual of a bygone age, but this one had all the hallmarks.

Indeed, so exotic and far-flung was the story, the BBC website felt compelled to point out how many tweeters had said that, until now, they had been unaware such a place as Timbuktu existed.

For centuries, this very real city in the north of Mali has come to represent a near mythical place. This week though, Timbuktu took on a contemporary resonance.

In a few days, Tuareg rebels fighting alongside Islamist militants who want to impose sharia law, pushed out Malian Government forces from the legendary city as well as the other strategic strongholds of Kidal and Gao on the southern edge of the Sahara.

In all, the Tuareg fighters say they have taken enough territory to form their own state they call Azawad. To that end the political/military entity that represents their independence aspirations, the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), has set about consolidating its gains.

Like the misguided notion of a mythical Timbuktu, such events might seem so remote as to be scarcely worthy of our attention.

This, though, would be to underestimate how important the outcome of events in Mali are; not only to maintaining political stability across the Sahara and Sahel regions, but to international efforts to isolate and neutralise the threat posed by al Qaeda and its local franchise, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that operates across this territory.

What is happening in Mali is complex. However, in shorthand terms, this once stable democracy was plunged into turmoil by a coup in the capital Bamako on March 22, led by low ranking officers frustrated with President Amadou Toumani Toure's handling of the Tuareg-led rebellion in the north.

Quick to exploit the confusion caused by the coup, the Tuareg pressed home their advantage, taking control of the three key northern towns and effectively splitting control of the country between north and south.

Where this gets intricate is that fighting alongside the mainstream Tuareg (MNLA) is another organisation called Ansar Dine, a local Islamist group with links to AQIM which is trying to impose sharia law and its own extremist aims.

That the"alliance" between the MNLA and Ansar Dine is largely one of military and logistical convenience, rather than any commonly held political aims on behalf of the Tuareg people's cause, goes without saying.

Indeed, some MNLA leaders have made clear they have no truck with their Ansar Dine counterparts and would take arms against them if it came to it.

These differing aims and fractures were once again highlighted over the last few days, as the MNLA said they would not advance beyond Timbuktu, while Ansar Dine have yet to give any such assurance.

The MNLA, too, unlike Ansar Dine, has indicated a willingness to negotiate with the Malian Government and the regional group, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

So the MNLA seems to be making efforts to allay concerns over alleged associations with the jihadists. In light of this you would think therein lies an opportunity in Mali. A chance to establish the kind of political dialogue that would see Tuareg separatist aspirations given greater recognition while simultaneously diminishing the influence of al Qaeda's franchise in the region.

Why then do the likes of the United States and European countries seem so reluctant to explore such possibilities, preferring to constantly flag up or reinforce the notion the MNLA and Ansar Dine are one and the same thing?

Yes, talking to MNLA leaders and addressing Tuareg hopes in Mali has implications for its neighbours, where these nomadic people also have communities. Maybe Western fears of this separatist contagion spreading lies at the root of the concern.

But not to engage with the Tuareg will serve to alienate and perhaps consolidate the tenuous links the MNLA have with Ansar Dine and AQIM.

Yesterday, French Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bernard Valero, expressed fears that in Mali's confused and volatile state, al Qaeda "will take advantage of the situation to expand its perimeter of activity and strengthen the terrorist threat".

Of that there is no doubt, but only if they are allowed to do so. Surely Mr Valero and his Western diplomatic counterparts cannot fail to see how powerful a bulwark the Tuareg and the MNLA might be against such a threat. It's time they thought again about tarring the Tuareg with the jihadist brush and gave them a chance at the West African negotiating table.