DAKAR, Senegal - African leaders will seek United Nations backing for military intervention in northern Mali, which for more than two months has been controlled by armed rebels and Islamic militants. The move comes amid citizen uprisings in the north as well as reported clashes among the armed groups themselves.
After weeks of meetings about how to deal with the takeover of northern Mali by armed groups, the military option is looking increasingly likely.
Following talks in Abidjan Thursday between the African Union, the United Nations and the regional bloc ECOWAS, regional leaders are set to formally request U.N. backing for a military intervention.
Following the Abidjan meeting, head of the ECOWAS commission Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo said ECOWAS was ready to provide troops for this mission, which will be costly and difficult given the hostile terrain. He says ECOWAS is counting on the contribution of the international community.
So to that end, he says, ECOWAS with the African Union’s support will introduce a request to the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that would provide a legal framework and international legitimacy to the action.
The latest rebellion by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, was launched in January, with the stated aim of establishing an independent state in what is now northern Mali. But when MNLA forces seized Mali’s three northern regions in the chaotic days after a March 22 coup in Bamako, fighting alongside them were Islamist extremists seeking to impose a strict version of Islamic law throughout Mali.
With the reportedly better equipped Islamist fighters appearing to dominate throughout northern Mali, the international community is worried about the creation of a vast haven for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in the West African desert.
African leaders said at the Abidjan meeting that regional mediators would continue negotiations with actors in the north “except terrorist groups." But it could be tough to find MNLA members who might be suitable interlocutors, after recent talk of an alliance between MNLA and the Islamic faction, Ansar Dine.
It is increasingly unclear just what ECOWAS troops would find on the ground in northern Mali, should a military intervention go forward. Islamist fighters from a number of countries are said to be circulating in the region.
This resident of the northern city of Timbuktu, who did not want his name used, said just last night more foreigners arrived.
He says since Thursday evening around 4 p.m. local time, a number of heavily armed foreigners have arrived in Timbuktu, including Pakistanis, Chadians and Algerians. He says it is clear they are there to reinforce al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. What is not clear, he says, is whether their arrival means they are bracing for a fight. He says the people are afraid and have no idea what the coming days have in store.
The African leaders’ step closer to military action comes amid reports of citizens' protests and clashes among armed groups in the north. MNLA and Ansar Dine forces reportedly clashed in the northern region of Kidal on Thursday night.
Residents of the north have demonstrated against the takeover by armed groups and the enforcement of a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Timbuktu resident says Ansar Dine there this week declared a curfew, sparking further consternation among residents.
A number of Malian leaders continue to reject any external military intervention. But Mali’s army, routed from the north by the armed fighters earlier this year, is in disarray, with periodic intra-army clashes threatening stability in the capital, Bamako, since the coup d’état.