West African nations have agreed to send more than 3,000 troops to help the country of Mali wrest back control of its northern half, which was seized by al-Qaeda-linked fighters more than six months ago, according to an official involved in the discussions.
The decision came late Sunday at the end of an emergency summit of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, in Lagos, Nigeria. They were joined by military experts from the United Nations, Europe as well as ministers from Algeria, Mali's neighbour to the north, which has previously been against the military intervention.
The plan needs final approval from the UN Security Council before it can be carried out.
An official involved in the negotiations said by telephone shortly after the meeting that the nations in West Africa are now unanimous in their decision to go forward with the military operation. He said that they will attempt one more round of negotiations with representatives of the Islamists controlling northern Mali before moving ahead with the intervention.
"We have agreed that 3,300 troops will be sent from West Africa. In addition, around 5,000 Malian troops will also be involved. If there is no agreement in the talks, we will move in," said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
The official said that the largest number of troops will come from Nigeria, which has agreed to send 600 to 700 soldiers. Niger is expected to contribute about 500, with the remaining troops coming from the other 13 nations in the 15-nation ECOWAS bloc. Air power, he said, will be provided by either France or the United States.
Both France and the U.S. have said that the will provide technical and logistical support to the intervention, provided it is first approved by the United Nations.
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.
In the more than six months since then, the Islamist extremists have imposed a strict form of Shariah law. Music of all kinds has been banned, and people are not even allowed to have a ring tone on their phones unless it's one based on Quranic recitations. Women have been flogged for failing to cover themselves. And in all three of the major towns in the north, residents have been forced to watch thieves getting their hands hacked off.
The United Nations is expected to meet later this month to review the military plan. Security analysts and diplomats say that even if the deployment of troops to north Mali is approved by the UN. it could take months to implement.
The official who spoke privately disagrees.
"As soon as they say it's OK, it won't take 24 hours for us to go. If the UN says go, we will move in immediately. They [the troops from ECOWAS] will be targeting the hardcore Islamists. Not the Malian nationals — but the foreigners," he said.