An official of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) says the sub-regional body is running out of time and patience for negotiating a settlement with Mali’s northern rebels.
Abdel Fatau Musah, ECOWAS director for external relations, says if the rebels do not soon relinquish control of the key cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal, then ECOWAS will have no option but to use all means necessary, including force, to regain control.
His comments follow reports that officials of the rebel National Liberation Movement of Azawad, which has declared a separate state in northern Mali, held a meeting over the weekend with ECOWAS mediator, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore.
Musah told VOA in an interview Sunday that the talks do not change ECOWAS’ position that the territorial integrity of Mali is non-negotiable.
“If we do not very quickly come to the negotiating table,” he said, “then we are going to use all other measures, including the use of force, to make sure we get them out of these territories.”
Musah said ECOWAS is open for discussing a variety of issues with the rebels. But he said, on one issue, ECOWAS will not budge: “We are not going to negotiate the territorial integrity of Mali. All other issues are on the table, but territorial integrity is off the table.”
Musah’s comments follow reports that officials of the rebel National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA), one of the groups now in power in northern Mali, held a meeting over the weekend with ECOWAS mediator, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore.
Speaking after the meeting, MNLA spokesman Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh said his group is ready to negotiate. He says MNLA sets itself apart from all groups in the region of Islamic or terrorist orientation, despite earlier trying to create an alliance with the Tuareg Islamist group Ansar Dine.
The Tuaregs are seeking to create an independent secular state of Azawad, while Ansar Dine wants to impose Sharia across the entire country. But the two groups joined forces earlier this year in a fast-moving offensive to seize northern Mali following a March 22 military coup in Bamako.
ECOWAS’ Musah says the coup has complicated regional efforts to intervene in the rebellion. “What is happening now is a very complex situation. It’s a double crisis,” he said. “We’ve got a constitutional crisis in Bamako and the rebellion in the north.”
“We would have preferred that Mali request ECOWAS” assistance, Musah added. But, he said, “The military are still in Bamako, still controlling the situation in Mali behind the scenes. So the transition, that political legitimacy that we need in Bamako, is currently absent.”
He explained ECOWAS, working also in tandem with the African Union, is going through channels at the United Nations to get a mandate under the UN’s Chapter Seven Provision to intervene in Mali.
“We want everybody to come on board,” he said, “and everybody to understand that what is happening in the north of Mali, is just not a threat to Mali, is not only a threat to West Africa, is not only a threat to Africa, but is a threat to international peace and security.”