African leaders have called on the United Nations to back military intervention in northern Mali, currently controlled by feuding armed groups.
Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the head of the ECOWAS Commission, the body that represents nations in West Africa, said on Thursday: "ECOWAS is ready to send men for this mission which will be costly and difficult due to the hostile terrain. It counts on the contribution of the international community.
"In order to do this it will introduce with the support of the African union a request to the Security Council of the United Nations to vote on a resolution that will give a legal framework and international legitimacy to our action."
Mali, once regarded as a fine example of African democracy, collapsed into chaos after soldiers toppled the president in March, leaving a power vacuum in the north that enabled Tuareg rebels to take control of nearly two-thirds of the country.
But the uprising also has involved a mix of local and foreign Islamists, who appear to be better armed and appear to have the upper hand in the rebel-occupied north with Western nations concerned about a real risk of the region slipping into a lawless no-man's land.
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou warned on Thursday that Jihadi fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan are training Islamist groups in northern Mali.
"We have information on the presence of Afghans and Pakistanis in northern Mali... They are believed to be working as instructors," he told the France 24 news channel.
"They are the ones who are training those who have been recruited across various west African countries," said Issoufou, whose country shares a long and porous desert border with Mali.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been active for years in northern Mali, where it has launched attacks against government army positions, kidnapped foreigners and allegedly benefited from drug running.
Issoufou said the Islamist groups are part of a global network spanning much of Africa and reaching all the way to Afghanistan.
"I think all these organisations co-operatamongst themselves, whether the Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, AQIM in Algeria and in the Sahel in general, all the way to Afghanistan," he said. "Our concern is that the Sahel not become a new Afghanistan."
ECOWAS has said for weeks it has men ready to be sent to Mali, but sources close to peacekeeping officials said the price tag of more than $200 million and confusion over the mission's objectives mean deployment is still far off.
Participants at a meeting of officials from the African Union, the western African grouping ECOWAS and the United Nations agreed on the need for the AU to make "a formal request" for UN backing for intervention to re-establish Mali's territorial integrity, according to the meeting's final document.
Chapter 7 mandate
The meeting in Abidjan "recognised the need to mobilise the appropriate means, including military," to help the Malian state to restructure its army and restore its authority over the north of the country as soon as possible as well as to "combat terrorist groups."
At the Abidjan meeting, Daniel Kablan Duncan, Ivory Coast's foreign minister, said a Chapter 7 mandate must be considered to reunite the country if talks with armed groups failed to resolve a crisis.
Tuareg and Islamists rebels have seized control in the north, but disagreements over the creation of a breakaway state persist, particularly over the implementation of Islamic law.
The rival groups, who seized the main cities in northern Mali after a March 22 coup in the southern capital Bamako, hold separate ideologies and objectives and the relationship has been an uneasy one.
The UN, AU and ECOWAS officials also called for the immediate dissolution of the ex-junta which came to power following the March coup by low-ranking officers, and for it to take no further part in the country's transition.
The rebels have officially ceded power to interim authorities but remain omnipresent.
Mali's transitional leaders have stressed their wish to restore the country's territorial integrity but seem unable to guarantee their own safety, let alone mount a credible challenge against the north's new masters.
Those meeting in the Ivory Coast capital also called on the Mali army to work exclusively "towards the preservation and defence of the unity and territorial integrity of Mali," and only under the authority of the interim president and government.
The UN, African Union and ECOWAS officials in Abidjan stressed that they would provide financial and logistical support for the efforts at stabilising the country.