ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA —
The response to the conflict in Mali is high on the agenda during the African Union summit, which opened Sunday in Addis Ababa. African leaders say establishing regional peace and security is crucial to sustaining the continent's development.
The theme of the AU summit is Pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance, a call for greater integration among member states and a celebration of the continent's rapid economic growth.
In the opening ceremony, AU Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said hope for the continent's future is pinned to its ability to maintain peace.
“Optimistic as we are, we are mindful of the enormous challenges that remain. We cannot overemphasize the need for peace and security. Without peace and security, no country or region can expect to achieve prosperity for all of its citizens,” said the chairperson.
French soldiers return from patrol in Sevare, some 620 kms (400 miles) north of Mali's capital Bamako, January 24, 2013.
The summit is convening as African soldiers deploy to Mali to support that country's national army in confronting al-Qaida linked militants who have seized territory in the north following a coup in March.
Soldiers from Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad are already on the ground, as an operation that originally involved only the West African economic bloc ECOWAS has expanded to include other African nations as well as France.
The force was originally to include some 3,300 troops, but countries have now pledged nearly 6,000.
African heads of state and government will consider a proposal by the AU Peace and Security Council to approve an increase in the number of troops and assistance from the United Nations.
The newly-elected president of the African Union Commission, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, expressed support for the African initiative.
“We should do everything possible to help restore constitutional order in Mali, safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and address the humanitarian crisis in collaboration with ECOWAS, the United Nations, and other international partners,” he said.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at the opening ceremony, praised the efforts of Mali and France against the rebels in the north, and said he is submitting recommendations to the U.N. Security Council on how to support the African intervention force.
Somalia's new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud addressed the assembly as the beneficiary of another AU military mission - AMISOM - that helped push al-Shabab militants from the Somali capital and other key cities.
“Let me wholeheartedly thank you all on behalf of Somali citizens for the support and the commitment and the blood lost by the African Union and their soldiers to bring our beloved motherland back to civilization and stability,” he said.
President Mohamud said while Somalia still needs much more support to build its government and sustain peace, it is once again working with the AU “not as a liability, but as a partner.”
Another deal to supply more African troops to a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo is expected to be signed on the sidelines of the AU summit, which concludes Monday.