The UN Security Council has said it will consider a request from West African countries for military intervention in Mali to root out Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who have seized control of the country's northern region.
The Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS, has planned the force for months but had been told by the Security Council that it had to wait for a formal request from Mali's interim government before submitting a proposal. Mali's request — initially opposed by the leaders of a March coup who retain considerable influence — finally came Sept. 1.
The Security Council urged ECOWAS to prepare a "feasible" plan with "detailed options" for a force. The council also called on the bloc to co-ordinate the plan with other African nations and the European Union.
World leaders will meet next week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to discuss the intervention force and the security and humanitarian situation in northern Mali, which the council warned is getting worse.
Request for help in wake of coup
Mali's request for assistance includes aerial support and five battalions, or about 3,000 troops, to help recover the northern territory that it lost in the chaos that followed the coup. Islamists and Tuareg rebels initially seized pieces of the region, but the Islamists later overtook the Tuaregs and gained control.
With Islamists moving closer to government-held territory in central Mali, the Security Council said terrorist elements like Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb have become more entrenched. The council demanded that all rebel groups cut ties with terrorists.
Since the coup, more than 250,000 Malians have fled the country, while 174,000 have been internally displaced, the UN said.
Meanwhile, an ongoing famine in Africa's Sahel region has left 1.63 million people in northern Mali in a "situation of severe, close to extreme, food insecurity," according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University's Earth Institute, speaking at an International Day of Peace talk at the UN, said the drought and competition for water was a big factor in Mali's collapse.
"I have to believe that a great part of this was a reflection of the underlying famine, hunger and disarray," he said, recalling requests that went unheeded from the then-president and a governor for help digging wells and providing aid in the North before the coup.
Human rights violations by rebels
The Security Council also condemned human rights violations by rebels and extremists.
Earlier this week, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said the Islamists have committed serious human rights violations and possibly war crimes, including amputations, summary executions and the stoning to death of an unmarried couple. A spokesman for one of the Islamist groups told The Associated Press on Sunday that their fighters cut off a thief's hand in Timbuktu.
Vuk Jeremic, the new president of the UN General Assembly, on Friday condemned the destruction of Timbuktu's world heritage sites by Islamists, calling it a "revolting expression of cultural cleansing."
Mali's leaders are still negotiating with ECOWAS over the timeline of the force's deployment and its mandate. Retaking the north will be jointly planned by an ECOWAS force headquarters in Bamako and Malian defence and security forces.
Mali's appeal falls short
Earlier this week at the Security Council, Ivory Coast's UN Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba, speaking on behalf of ECOWAS, said Mali's request for intervention fell short of what the bloc had anticipated.
Mali ruled out an ECOWAS military presence in the first two phases of the planned deployment — assisting to secure institutions in Bamako during the political transition and helping to reorganize and train the Malian forces, he said. The force would be limited to providing equipment, logistics and intelligence during the first two phases.
Bamba told the council that delaying military deployment would be strategically unwise and would make the mission extremely difficult.
Rebel and terrorist groups in the north have taken advantage of the near political paralysis in Bamako to consolidate their positions, Bamba said.
That paralysis has been blamed on military strongmen, and on Friday the Security Council called for Mali's armed forces to stop interfering with the fragile interim government. Bamako has been the site of a confused state of political affairs lately, heightening the perception that the soldiers who led the March coup are still manipulating the reins of power.
In a bizarre twist, the Malian government refused for days after making its request for an intervention force to confirm to its own people that it had in fact made the appeal to ECOWAS. The Associated Press later obtained a copy of the request dated Sept. 1, which confirmed that Interim President Dioncounda Traore had asked for assistance.