The African Union is asking the United Nations Security Council to endorse a military intervention to free northern Mali from Islamic extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The African Union's Peace and Security Council late Tuesday endorsed a plan to send 3,300 soldiers to Mali and called on the UN Security Council to authorize the deployment for an initial period of one year. Leaders from the West African bloc known as Economic Community Of West African States — the 15-nation bloc that wields considerable influence in the region — agreed on the plan Sunday.

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Mutinous soldiers overthrew Mali's democratically elected president in March, creating a power vacuum that paved the way for Islamists to grab the north, an area the size of France. Since then, Islamic fundamentalists have imposed strict Shariah law, banning music and whipping, amputating and stoning to death people convicted of crimes.

According to the African Union and ECOWAS military plan, some 5,000 Malian troops would be joined by 3,300 African troops. The largest number of foreign troops would be about 600 to 700 from Nigeria. The country of Niger would send about 500 and the remainder of troops would come from other African countries.

The new Afghanistan

Air power and technical and logistical support would be provided by France or the United States, as long as the plan is approved by the United Nations.

Many in the West fear that northern Mali and the arid Sahel region could become the new Afghanistan, a no-man's land where extremists can train, impose hardline Islamic law and plot terror attacks abroad. France, former colonial ruler to countries across the Sahel, is a prime target. That is why France and neighbouring African countries are planning the joint military intervention in northern Mali.

While these plans for an international military intervention in northern Mali proceed, diplomats are trying to resolve the Mali crisis through negotiation.

'We hope that the dialogue takes place as soon as possible because all the peoples of northern Mali are anxious to rejoin the Mali republic and its values.'—Said Djinnit, UN special envoy for West Africa

The UN special envoy for West Africa, Said Djinnit, met Tuesday with Ansar Dine, one of the three Islamic extremist groups controlling northern Mali, to urge them to join political dialogue to end the crisis in northern Mali. The UN envoy met in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso with an Ansar Dine delegation led by Algabass Ag Intalla.

Djinnit said that talks are being tried to find a peaceful solution to Mali's crisis, force will be used against those who refuse.

"We want to give priority to dialogue. We hope that the dialogue takes place as soon as possible because all the peoples of northern Mali are anxious to rejoin the Mali republic and its values," said Djinnit, after meeting with Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso who is also the Mali mediator for ECOWAS.

Islamist group to give up terrorism

Djinnit urged Ansar Dine to uphold "the values of tolerance" and warned that "those who advocate terrorism and religious extremism will face whatever action the international community deems appropriate."

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Protesters play music as they take part in a march for peace in northern Mali, as well as in Senegal's restive Casamance province, in Dakar, on Saturday. (Seyllou/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

When it began the mediations last week, Ansar Dine announced it was giving up terrorism and organized crime and was ready to join political dialogue. ECOWAS and the international community have been urging Ansar Dine, which is occupying the Kidal region of northern Mali, to cut ties with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

Ansar Dine is believed to be made up mostly of Malian fighters, whereas the two other groups — AQIM and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO — are said to be primarily composed of foreign fighters, some allegedly from as far afield as Pakistan. Mediators are hoping to weaken the Islamic rebel front by peeling off the more moderate members.

Months of rebuilding

The head of the U.S. Africa Command says Mali's military will take months to rebuild — even as West African nations and their Western backers examine ways of dislodging al-Qaida from the country's vast northeast.

Gen. Carter Ham says a weekend agreement by west African bloc Ecowas provided the "broad outlines" of a possible military intervention led by Mali's government against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies.

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General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. military's Africa Command (AFRICOM), said Wednesday that Mali's military will take months to rebuild. (Louafi Larbi/Reuters)

Speaking Wednesday to reporters in Paris, Ham estimated AQIM and two allied groups have 800 to 1,200 "hardline fighters" who control the northeast.

Western nations fear the area could become a breeding ground for terrorism against U.S. or European targets. Ham said Mali's government and Ecowas have not asked for any specific U.S. military capabilities. The EU is considering noncombat support.