BAMAKO (AFP) – West African army chiefs met Tuesday to study a proposal drafted by international experts on how their troops could expel Islamic extremists who have occupied northern Mali for months.
The meeting comes seven months after radicals linked to the north African Al-Qaeda branch took over the vast arid north, triggering fears in the region and among Western powers that the zone could become a new haven for terrorists.
Diplomatic efforts for a military solution have intensified, but negotiations are also under way to get the main Islamist group Ansar Dine to cut ties with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with talks in Algiers and Ouagadougou.
Military bosses from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) need to approve the details for an eventual military operation which were decided during a week-long meeting of international experts in Bamako.
“It is about coming to a rapid agreement on an operational concept to help Mali quickly reconquer its north,” said Mali’s army chief General Soumaila Bakayoko.
“I can confirm that we are ready to play our role.”
The plan will then be passed to regional heads of state for approval before being presented to the UN Security Council on November 26.
The United Nations wants clarification on the makeup of a regional force, the level of participation from various west African states, and the financing and military means available.
Guinea’s former transition leader General Sekouba Konate, who was charged by the African Union with leading the standby force, also attended the meeting.
“I want to pay tribute to the work which has led to the development of the plan. The crises which Mali is facing are detrimental to peace in the sub-region,” Konate said.
“Mali can count on its friends, its partners from the standby force, to respect its territorial integrity.”
Mali, once one of the region’s most stable democracies, has rapidly imploded since a Tuareg rebellion for independence began in January and rapidly overwhelmed the state’s poorly equipped army.
Angry over the government’s handling of the crisis, soldiers staged a coup in March, which only made it easier for the rebels to seize a string of desert towns such as Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
The secular separatists were quickly sidelined by Islamists fighting on their flanks who had little interest in their aspirations for an independent homeland and set about implementing strict sharia law.
Ansar Dine (“Defenders of Faith” in Arabic) and AQIM splinter group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have stoned people to death, whipped them, amputated limbs and forced women to cover up.
However in talks in Ougadougou Ansar Dine delegates insist their group — made up mainly of Malian Tuareg like its chief, Iyad Ag Ghaly — has not committed “any act of terrorism” and favours a negotiated settlement to the crisis.
Their team in Burkina Faso will on Tuesday meet the country’s President Blaise Compaore, who is the lead ECOWAS mediator.
The 16-nation west African bloc has demanded that Ansar Dine end “terror and organised crime” in the region, abandon its allies and engage in a dialogue to re-establish a unified Mali.
This will involve further negotiations with Bamako — where a fragile interim government has struggled to assert itself — as well as the Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
Another Ansar Dine delegation is in Algeria for talks.
Algeria, with its superior military, counter-terrorism and intelligence capabilities, is seen as key to any military operation but has been hesitant to get involved, preferring a negotiated solution.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the north African heavyweight last week to lobby for support in ousting the extremists.
It is expected that up to 4,000 African troops could be sent to Mali, regional experts have said, without ruling out the possibility of non-African troops taking part in the military operation.