DAKAR - Mali's interim leader Dioncounda Traore requested thatthe West African regional bloc ECOWAS provide "military assistance" to recover occupied territory in the north and fight terrorism. The reported request was made in a letter delivered to Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who holds the rotating ECOWAS (Economic Community of West Africa States) leadership. It came just days after Islamist militants pushed further south toward the Mopti region.
France's special representative to the Sahel, Jean Felix-Paganon, announced the request Tuesday while speaking with reporters in Burkina Faso's capital.
He said he had just come from Abidjan, where Ouattara said Traore had requested ECOWAS forces to help stabilize the country and above all, retake the north. An important development, it appears the request had been in the works for some time Felix-Paganon said.
The Malian government has not commented publicly about the French official's report.
Al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants control two-thirds of Mali's national territory in the north. They took advantage of a March 22 military coup in Bamako to seize territory in April along with Tuareg rebels whom they have since forced out.
A militant al-Qaida-linked group, known as MUJAO, pushed south on September 1, seizing the town of Douentza without a fight. The move brings them less than 200 kilometers from a Malian army stronghold in Sevare.
The seizure of Douentza was met with alarm and frustration in Mali's capital, Bamako. A large political coalition, the United Front for the Defense of the Republic and Democracy, called it "an affront to [Mali's] army and its people."
Coalition vice-president Fatoumata Diakhite says they welcome the government's request for ECOWAS assistance. She says the army didn't do anything to stop the militants from taking Douentza. She says Mali has men in uniform, but not an army. She says they need outside assistance to free the north. She says they don't want any more talking, they want action.
However, some in Bamako have previously rejected the idea of foreign troops on Malian soil. The leader of one such coalition said that is up to the government to sell the Malian people on the benefits of ECOWAS assistance but declined to comment further until the details of the reported request are released.
ECOWAS has previously said it is ready to send 3,000 troops for what it says would be a three-prong mission: reorganize the Malian army - still in disorder following the coup - secure the transitional government in Bamako, and help retake the North.
ECOWAS has been waiting for Mali's formal request before it returns to the United Nations Security Council to request an intervention mandate. The Security Council turned down a previous request, saying it was too vague.