BAMAKO— High-level delegations from the United Nations, West African bloc ECOWAS, and the African Union met with Malian leaders Friday to develop a coherent strategy for tackling the crisis in northern Mali, where al-Qaida linked militant groups have taken control.
Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore urged representatives from ECOWAS, the African Union, European Union, United Nations and other key partners to act immediately in addressing the deteriorating situation in the north.
Traore assured attendees of the total cooperation of the Malian government, and said it would not falter because those present were there as friends, brothers and partners at a time when the pooling of resources is the only response to the security challenges that Mali is facing.
Traore described the situation as a “race against time” against a “common enemy” and said that these challenges represent a risk for the Sahel, for West Africa, for the Sahara, for Africa and for the world.
The United Nations has been calling on ECOWAS for months to provide a more detailed plan for its proposed military action in northern Mali against the al-Qaida linked militant groups who seized control in April following a March 22nd coup in Mali's capital.
This highly anticipated meeting is seen as a decisive step in developing a coherent strategy for tackling the crisis.
Among those present was former prime minister Romano Prodi of Italy, who U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed as his Special Envoy for the Sahel earlier this month. Their attendance was praised by
Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Jan Eliasson.
"The presence here today of the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Sahel -- former president of the European Commission and prime minister of Italy Romano Prodi -- is a tangible expression of the commitment of the United Nations to helping resolve the crisis in the Sahel and in Mali," Eliasson said.
The newly-appointed chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, echoed these sentiments.
"I have chosen to make this my first trip in my official capacity as the chairperson of the African Union Commission to Mali to convey a message of solidarity from our continent to the people of this great country, said Zuma. "In so doing, I also want to highlight the AU's deep concern about the prevailing situation and the AU's determination to do everything in our power to help the people of Mali to find a speedy resolution to the overlapping crises in their country."
The U.N. refugee agency says at least 450,000 people in northern Mali have fled into neighboring countries or into the government-held south since the start of the year.
Several recent reports have highlighted a litany of human rights abuses committed by militants in the north, including amputations, recruitment of child soldiers and forced prostitution. Smoking and music are banned, and in many towns women are forced to wear a veil and are forbidden from interacting with men in public.
Once a military intervention plan is finalized and submitted to the U.N., the Security Council will need to hold a second vote to decide whether to approve the operation. Several experts said that even if the Security Council approves the proposal as is, and does not request further details or revisions, it could be months before ECOWAS troops are on the ground.
Toward the end of his speech Friday, Traore drew applause when he called on the international community to lift the sanctions that were put in place after the coup until elections are held, arguing that they are hurting the economy.
Mali is working to organize credible, transparent elections as soon as possible,he said, but added that Mali’s entire territory should participate in elections, otherwise it would be a recognition of the current status quo and the division of the country.